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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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‘She told me he lives in a cramped little flat in Crouch End. Is that true?’ It was an innocent piece of cunning, she assured herself. Just checking for consistency.

Belinda laughed, her mouth wide and eyes damp with merriment. ‘God, no, of course not. That’s Mariella’s place, and it’s really rather pleasant. He’s there a lot, but he’s just between houses. He’s trying to buy somewhere in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He’s put the offer in.’

It fitted well with Mark’s account, Thea noted, with a certain relief. ‘Mariella?’

‘She’s his girlfriend. Filipina. I don’t like her at all – she’s younger than me – but he seems to be infatuated. I endure her in order not to fall out with him.’

‘Does your mother know about her?’

‘Must do by now, if she’s been to the Crouch End place. We’ve been trying to keep it from her, up to now. She’ll be pretty sick about it, of course. Any wife would be.’

‘Even an ex-wife,’ Thea nodded. ‘The age difference alone makes it pretty hard to take, I imagine.’

‘Right. But she cooks like an angel, I’ll give her that.’

‘I went there,’ Thea confessed, with difficulty. She had no idea how she was to explain herself. Even in her own mind, she no longer knew what she thought she was doing. ‘We met a nanny from across the road who said they have a cleaning lady.’

Belinda stared furiously at her. ‘So what if they do? What in the world did you go there for? What business is it of yours?’

‘I had a weird phone call and the police said they couldn’t find anybody with your father’s name in that part of London, and your mother’s car was there, with a resident’s permit on it.’ She was gabbling, trying to justify herself.

Belinda held up a dainty hand in appeal. ‘A weird phone call?’

‘From your father. On Monday evening. I went there yesterday. I had another reason as well. It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.’

‘But you didn’t see Dad?’

‘No.’

She frowned, and seemed to be slightly out of breath. ‘He’s not responding to my calls.
How
was it weird? The phone call, I mean.’

Thea’s own heart rate was accelerating as she processed the fresh details, which fitted uncomfortably well with everything she had learnt.
Gudrun
, insisted a little voice. Somehow, all along, she had known there was a link between Hyacinth House and Gudrun Horsfall and her dead child. Nothing Belinda had said quite confirmed this, but she could feel it coming closer. Somewhere everything connected, with Victor Parker at the core of it.

‘He cried out, as if he was hurt. And a woman screamed. But nothing’s been reported, as far as I know. And now they’ve charged Gudrun with killing Stevie, the police aren’t at all interested in your family. Why would they be?’

‘No reason,’ said Belinda slowly. ‘But something isn’t right. I wonder whether my dad is in some sort of trouble.’

‘Can you go to London and check?’

‘If I have to, yes.’

‘I have told the police all this, and given them his address. They don’t appear to be taking it at all
seriously. If you tell them you’re worried, that might galvanise them a bit.’

The grimace returned, with no attempt to hide it this time. ‘That seems a bit … excessive. I mean – I’m sure he’s all right, really.’ She picked at her lower lip for a few seconds. ‘They arrested Gudrun – is that right? They think she killed the boy?’

‘That’s right. It was probably on the news, but I can’t bear to watch it. It’s so horrifying, to imagine how she could ever—’

‘Has she been in custody since Sunday, then?’

‘Oh, no. I saw her on Monday and Tuesday.’ Guiltily she suppressed the information that Gudrun had actually spent Monday night in Belinda’s mother’s bed. Somehow she did not think the young woman would approve. ‘I’m not sure where she was after I saw her yesterday, and I don’t know for sure that she’s in custody now. Probably she is, for her own protection. As far as I know it was sometime yesterday that they decided there was enough evidence to charge her.’

‘So when you heard my dad cry out, Gudrun was free?’

‘No, no – she was here, upstairs actually. I wasn’t going to tell you. It was one thing after another that evening – first she arrived, then Drew phoned, and then your father. It was around nine by then. Why?’ Thea had never for a moment linked Gudrun with Victor, and still wasn’t sure that this was Belinda’s drift.

‘It’s only a hunch – but I’ve had a suspicion for a long
time now. I saw Dad once, just before the separation, talking to Stevie. They were out in the field, and Gudrun was there, picking elderflowers. Stevie was only about five at the time. I hadn’t long known of his existence and I was curious to see whether he was like her. People had been gossiping in the pub about who his father might be. All sorts of filthy suggestions were flying around, that I didn’t like at all. Anyway, I saw Dad put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, just lightly, no big deal – but it stayed with me. Something about the image they made together, and then Gudrun looked over at them, and called Stevie away, and Dad came back to the house, and that was it. I couldn’t make anything of it, but ever since then there’s been a niggling idea at the back of my mind, which I could never quite squash.’

Thea heard that idea, loud and clear. ‘You think Stevie might have been his son?’ She felt dazzled by the numerous light bulbs going on inside her head. ‘My God! That puts the whole thing in a completely different light. Have you ever told anybody?’

‘Hold on!’ Belinda leant back in the cushions and stared at the ceiling. ‘Just hold on. It was only a fleeting idea, that’s all. It’s probably quite wrong. If Gudrun killed the boy, then that’s all there is to it. She must have had a fit of madness or something. Or did it by mistake, trying to restrain him. I never should have said anything. My father has absolutely nothing to do with it. Obviously he hasn’t.’

But Thea’s mind wouldn’t stop. ‘But why
now
?’ she demanded. ‘What’s changed to make it happen now, with Yvonne away and Victor between houses? Could it be that Victor asked for contact with his son? Has he threatened to tell Yvonne about it? Yes! That would make sense. At least—’ The complications began to run away with her, and she stared frustratedly at her visitor. ‘Sorry – I shouldn’t talk like this about your parents, should I …?’ she tailed off.

‘I have no idea what you’re trying to suggest. You’re making ridiculous stabs in the dark,’ Belinda pointed out. ‘Just guessing, on no basis at all. But I
do
want to make sure that Dad’s all right. That’s my main concern. After all, if Gudrun killed her own child, she might be capable of other terrible things. She might have gone to London to tell him Stevie was dead, and—’

Thea tilted her head enquiringly. ‘You’d be perfectly justified in phoning the London police and asking them again to go and have a look. After all, it’s already on their files, because Gladwin spoke to them again yesterday and passed on his address.’

‘Gladwin?’

‘The senior detective working on the case. I know her, actually. She’s a good person.’

Belinda said nothing to this, but picked at her lip again.

‘Do you know Blake-next-door?’ Thea asked. ‘Or his girlfriend?’

‘I’ve met them a few times. Mum never stops talking
about him. He seems very protective of her, listens to her complaining, admires all her dopey things. I sometimes wonder whether he just makes her worse.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I think she might meet more people, find new things to do, if he left her alone a bit more. It always sounds a bit
pushy
, somehow, when she talks about him.’

Thea nodded. ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she said. ‘And what’s the deal with the garden? He can’t just hand over half his land without some sort of contract, can he? What happens if one of them wants to sell?’

‘I know. But she won’t be told. Says it suits them both perfectly, and anyway she can’t cope with a lot of paperwork.’

‘But she’s a
teacher
,’ Thea protested. ‘I thought their whole job was managing paperwork.’

Belinda laughed. ‘Ah, but she says it’s the same stuff, term after term, and she just ticks the same boxes and hopes for the best. She’s been doing it for twenty-odd years now. I guess it does get pretty routine.’

‘Maybe,’ said Thea doubtfully. ‘Do you want another coffee?’

Belinda shook her head and eyed the mug balanced on the arm of the sofa. ‘I haven’t quite finished this one yet. I ought to be going, I suppose. It’s been great talking to you, although I’m not sure we’ve come to any conclusions. In fact, I’m a lot more worried about my dad now than I was when I arrived. I suppose I
could go and see if I can find him, but the
traffic
,’ she groaned. ‘North London can be awful.’

Thea’s knowledge of London geography had scarcely been improved by her visit to Crouch End, but she did recall the basic layout. ‘M25 and then straight down into Cricklewood,’ she suggested diffidently. ‘Isn’t that the quickest way?’

‘Is that how you went yesterday?’

‘No, I used the train. But I did have a quick look at a road map, as well as the
A–Z,
when I was wondering how your mother was going to manage it, on Saturday. It looked reasonably easy, actually.’

‘I hate it. Give me the good old A44 every time.’

Thea was reminded of Belinda’s brother Mark, and his dubious movements on Sunday. ‘You and Mark must use it a lot,’ she suggested.

‘We probably know every inch of it, between us. He told me he came here on Monday morning, of course. After what he said, I felt I had to come and see you for myself. We’ve never met a house-sitter before. He thought you must be getting rather bored by now.’

Thea smiled. ‘I get used to it.’

Belinda made to get up, putting out a hand to lever herself out of the soft cushions and swiping the coffee mug onto the floor. ‘Oh, damn,’ she cried. ‘Right on the lambskin rug. Quick – get a mop or something.’

The coffee was already spreading and soaking into the wool, but Thea felt little panic. ‘It’ll be okay,’ she soothed. ‘I’m sure it won’t stain.’ She had been aware
of a slightly lumpy tissue or hanky in her pocket, as she’d been talking to Belinda, and now she reached in for it, thinking it would work as at least a preliminary cloth to wipe up the worst of the spillage. Belinda’s peremptory order to run to the kitchen made her stubbornly resistant to any show of blind obedience. The visitor had made the mess, she knew where the mops and sponges were kept – let her go and find them.

‘Here,’ she said. ‘Use this.’ And she handed Belinda Parker a large dead mouse.

Belinda screamed with far more horrified terror than was necessary, in Thea’s view. The soft grey-brown body lay in her hand, tiny feet curled tightly, tail stretched out. Thea’s own sense of shocked revulsion had passed in seconds as she realised what must have happened in the night-time bathroom. ‘Poor little thing,’ she murmured. ‘And I’ve been carrying it around all morning without realising.’

‘Take it away! For God’s sake – it’s
dead
.’

‘Surely that’s preferable to being alive and running all over us?’

‘But it was in your
pocket
.’ Belinda was at the farthest edge of the room, her face white, her mouth a rectangle of disgust. ‘How
could
you? That’s so utterly gross.’

‘The cat let it go last night, in the bathroom. It must
have been injured, and crawled into my trousers to escape. Poor little thing,’ Thea repeated. ‘It’s only a mouse.’

‘I
hate
mice. They’re revolting.’

‘They’re not as bad as hornets,’ said Thea with some force. ‘Blake says there’s a nest in the roof and your mother doesn’t want them removed. Compared to the sting of a hornet, a mouse is totally harmless. I’d far rather be bitten by a mouse than stung by a hornet. Besides, this little thing isn’t going to hurt anybody.’ She stroked the soft warm body, just to make her point, fully aware that she would never have normally shown such solicitude. On her own, she might have indulged a few more shivers of abhorrence at what she’d been carrying so close to her body for the past few hours.

‘Throw it away,’ Belinda pleaded. ‘It’s making me feel sick.’

‘Okay. It’s going. I’m sorry you’re so freaked about it. I honestly had no idea it was in there. I thought it was a hanky.’

Somehow they got themselves outside, Belinda shakily conceding that she had made rather a lot of fuss. ‘Lucky nothing else got knocked over,’ she said. ‘I must have flown across the room before I knew what I was doing.’

‘Lucky my dog didn’t cotton on to what was happening. You’d think she’d have detected a mouse in my pocket, wouldn’t you? Useless thing. Although
I suppose she just thought I knew what I was doing, and it was none of her business.’

Belinda smiled feebly at this. ‘I imagine she’s good company.’

‘Oh yes,’ Thea agreed fervently. ‘She’s definitely that.’ She chirruped at the spaniel, who looked up from where she was sitting on the lawn, and wagged her long tail slowly.

When Belinda’s car had finally disappeared from sight, Thea went back into the house, and mopped up the puddle of coffee. The lambskin seemed little the worse for the experience, but she decided to give it a careful wash in the bath, for good measure. It was obvious that Belinda had only taken a few sips of the disappointing instant. Thea found herself wondering whether she’d made a very good impression – being mean with the coffee and bizarrely harbouring a dead mouse in her pocket. Not to mention stirring up alarming visions of Belinda’s father being attacked. ‘I wonder what else I did wrong,’ she muttered to herself as she carried the soggy sheepskin up the stairs.

 

At Peaceful Repose Burial Ground, Wednesday morning was considerably less eventful than it had been at Snowshill. Drew sat miserably in his office, waiting for the phone to ring. Maggs could barely bring herself to speak to him, and the gap where Karen should be had become a huge aching hole that seemed to grow bigger with every passing hour. He
was desperate to talk to her, to explain how wrong Maggs was about almost everything – Thea, the future, Broad Campden, Cranham, the children, and Karen herself. He was equally desperate to understand how it was, there in that black silence inside Karen’s head. Did she want permission to sink peacefully into permanent oblivion? Or did she still hope that Drew could magically save her, by the sheer force of his will? Or was all that wanting and hoping long gone, the cells dying and shrivelling and leaving only a husk?

He was an undertaker, for heaven’s sake! He should have an instinctive grasp of all this stuff, having been party to so many deaths. He had even been at the bedside of hospice patients, hours before they died, assuring them they would receive the sort of funeral they desired. But they had all
talked
to him. Karen said nothing. And yet she breathed without assistance. Her heart continued to beat and her blood to flow. This prolonged limbo was far beyond his experience or his understanding. It was beyond language, too, despite his argument with Maggs. Mundane decisions about how Karen should be treated seemed to be entirely off the point. He had considered pleading with the doctors to open her head and delve deep into her brain to find the problem, all the time knowing this would be impossible. She would die, once and for all, under their probing scalpels. But at least they would have tried, and her death would be unambiguous. He suspected that the doctors too were tempted to hasten
the end under the guise of trying one final time to cure her. Any activity was better than this stasis – even Maggs felt the power of that instinct. But you couldn’t say it. The words would not come.

Stephanie had been odd over breakfast, playing with the food and banging her heels on the chair like a toddler. ‘Is Mummy coming home soon?’ she asked. ‘Daddy,
is
she?’

‘I don’t think so, darling,’ he had said, too far gone in hopelessness to offer her a platitude. ‘I really don’t think she is.’

‘You mean she’ll
die
?’

‘I think so, Steph. We don’t know for sure. Maggs thinks she might wake up one day. But I …’

Stephanie stared at her uneaten Weetabix. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘Thank you, Daddy.’ She looked up and met his eyes steadily. ‘It’s better to know, isn’t it? Even when it’s very bad, you do have to know.’

Drew was unsure whether she was merely quoting something she had heard an adult say, or whether she really felt the truth of it for herself. He nodded at her, and forced a smile. Stephanie reached a hand to her younger brother, who stared from face to face with large terrified eyes. ‘It’s okay, Tim,’ she consoled. ‘Mummy doesn’t hurt. And, you know, everybody dies. We have to understand that.’

There speaks the child of an undertaker,
thought Drew ruefully. Stephanie had weathered the death of a hamster with remarkable stoicism. When it came to
her own mother, it seemed she took the same line. He felt admiration, concern and envy when he looked at her.

Timmy let out a great howl. ‘No!’ he wailed. ‘Mummy won’t die. I won’t let Mummy die.’ He looked again from sister to father with rage and despair. ‘Daddy, you have to wake her up again.’

‘Oh, Tim,’ sighed Drew. ‘I would if I could, but it’s just too difficult.’

His little son scowled accusingly at him. ‘Just try harder,’ he said.

‘I
have
tried, Tim. As hard as I could. Mummy has to try as well, but I think it’s too late.’ He bowed his head, and watched his shaking hands. He felt deathly cold.

‘She can have a grave in the field, can’t she? She’ll be there all the time.’

He stared at the little girl. Not for a single moment had this thought occurred to him. He had not, then, faced the prospect of his wife’s dying, not at all. The leap from her not waking up to being dead and buried had been too great. Stephanie was well ahead of him.

‘Yes,’ he said. Then he pushed back his chair and lunged for the child. ‘Oh, Steph,’ he sobbed, clutching her tightly to his chest.

She stroked him clumsily on his back, with a hand that was only free from the wrist. ‘Don’t squash me, Daddy,’ she yelped.

‘Do daddies cry?’ asked Tim wonderingly.

With a vast effort, Drew took control again. ‘Yes they do,’ he replied. ‘As you can see.’

‘Maggs can look after us,’ Stephanie suggested briskly. ‘When you’re too busy and Granny has gone back to her farm. We can manage.’

Of course, Drew reminded himself, they had had three years of a semi-absent mother. Karen had been unfocused, forgetful, inattentive ever since her original injury. Stephanie had dealt with this withdrawal by finding a substitute in Maggs, to some extent, and by cementing her already solid relationship with him, her father. Timmy had been the real loser. Timmy’s deprivation was enormous and irredeemable. Drew felt very, very sorry for his little son.

 

Thea was trying to decide where her duties lay regarding the Parker family. The visits from both members of the younger generation felt acutely significant, even though she was unsure of precisely how. They seemed to be checking on her in some way, as if worried by something she might be doing. And she didn’t think it was concern for the knick-knacks that motivated them.

Could it be the diaries? Did they know of their existence? It seemed improbable that they would care about jottings made by their mother ten years ago. Neither had even glanced at the bureau, so far as she had noticed. Did they not trust her to actually remain in place, after what had happened on Sunday? Did
they …? Her imagination ran dry at that point, and she sighed helplessly. Let Belinda go and find her father. That at least would be one puzzle resolved. In fact, on closer inspection, that now seemed to be the
only
remaining puzzle. Yvonne was in France. Gudrun was in custody. Blake was probably dozing after his early flight and Gladwin was completing all the prodigious paperwork associated with charging a woman with killing her own son.

Belinda’s suspicions about Gudrun, Stevie and Victor had certainly been startling. Again, it took some concentrated thought to trace all the threads and conclude that here, finally, was a possible connection between the Horsfalls and the Parkers, beyond the proximity of their two houses. It required her to go over the exact timings of the past four days, just to work out who could have been where and when.

Why am I doing this?
she asked herself, after a while.
What’s the point?

To exonerate Gudrun Horsfall,
came the unambiguous reply. The police had got the wrong person, despite the stark evidence of Stevie’s missing shoe which convinced them that Gudrun was guilty. There could be other explanations for that – the most obvious one being that somebody had deliberately placed the shoe in Gudrun’s house to cast suspicion on her.

Ideas could come at lightning speed, sometimes. Or they could take days to form themselves and push
their tentative little heads above the surface of the unconscious mind. The shock and horror of Gladwin’s announcement that Gudrun was to be charged had paralysed some of Thea’s thought processes. It was too big a disaster for her to contemplate, the emotions too excruciatingly raw. The conversation with Clara Beauchamp had been close to unbearable, with the image of the struggling child fighting for his life. It had sent Thea’s mind into hiding, where all such imaginings were firmly tucked away.

But now the dam was breaking and a whole lot of suspicions came tumbling through the breach. Somebody had framed Gudrun. Somebody had attacked Victor. Mark, she remembered, had dissembled as to his whereabouts at the weekend. And even Blake had changed his plans, with no credible explanation. Mark and Belinda were worried about something connected with Hyacinth House and their mother. Janice and Ruby generated many questions. And poor little Stevie was irreversibly dead. Thea could no longer just sit tight and let things drift. It wasn’t in her nature. She had to do something, and talk to somebody.

And the only candidate for that discussion was Drew Slocombe.

She couldn’t just phone him, she decided. It was only the day before that they had indulged in their childish escapade, and as they parted at Paddington, they both acknowledged that it could not mark any
deepening of their friendship. It was obvious that he had more than enough to cope with at home, and there was no real reason for further contact, with things as they were.

There were times when house-sitting felt like imprisonment, with the implacable routines of animal feeding making sure she was on duty at given times. And hadn’t Yvonne asked her to keep an eye on the cows in the field at the back, as well? She had done no more than cast a quick eye over them since Saturday. If one was lame or sick, would anybody know? Their owner, Yvonne had made clear, was the person ultimately responsible for them, but she had implied that daily monitoring was down to the occupant of Hyacinth House.

Everything seemed to be normal when she went to the gate and looked over into the field. Five handsome beasts lay quietly chewing their cud under a spreading oak tree. Whilst it wasn’t possible to scrutinise their legs or gait, the picture of idyllic contentment was quite enough to reassure her. Stevie’s stones had only made glancing contact, as far as she had been able to judge. It was the
intention
that she had taken such exception to, the idea that a child could actively wish to inflict pain on an animal.

The theories that had arisen when Gladwin told her about Stevie’s shoe re-emerged now: the possibility that Stevie’s killer had crossed this field with him, as the quickest way from the Horsfalls’ cottage. Looking
at it now, she wasn’t sure it really would be quicker, unless the killing had taken place in the field itself. Then it would have been easy to use the gate into Yvonne’s garden, and past the house into the road beyond. As far as she could tell, there was no matching gate at the further end of the field – no direct access from the cottage.

If she was serious about proving that somebody else, other than his mother, had killed the boy, then details of place and timing became crucial. Both Blake Grossman and Mark Parker could have been lurking around Snowshill at the time Stevie was killed, while maintaining alibis that they were elsewhere entirely. Both knew Gudrun and her boy and it wasn’t too hard to imagine motives for killing him. The main problem was that they both seemed too soft and sensitive to do such a thing. Blake less so, after his snappy words on Saturday, but surely the boneless Mark could never do such a thing.

And yet she knew that people could dissemble, hiding their malice and obsessions under bland smiling exteriors. Trust was often found to be misplaced. In recent years she had really liked people who turned out to be killers. The role of a house-sitter was convenient in that respect – the friendships she formed were temporary and provisional. Even when she thought she had found a real chum in Ariadne Fletcher, during her stay at Cold Aston and again in Lower Slaughter, their relationship had soon
foundered on the realities of lies and violence. She was very tempted to go home to her old friend Celia and her daughter Jessica and a few other stalwarts, and forget the tribulations of the latest commission in a gorgeous Cotswold village.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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