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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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‘Why? I mean why don’t you leave her alone? What’s it to do with you?’

‘Oh, shut up, you fool. I thought you were stupid, the first time I saw you, and nothing you’ve said or done since has changed my mind.’

Nobody since her older brother, thirty years ago, had called her stupid. It was one epithet she could confidently reject. Except … there
had
been a few episodes over the past year or so where her behaviour hadn’t been entirely sensible. This time, though, she could see no possible justification for the accusation.

He ignored her outraged spluttering and strode to the front door, followed by Nutella.
No, it’s Mariella,
Thea suddenly remembered. She should at least do
the woman the justice of getting her name right. She wrestled with her powerful urge to stop them, or at least warn Yvonne. ‘She’ll probably be asleep,’ she protested. ‘You’ve no right—’

Blake paused at the door and scowled at Thea. ‘I have more right than you,’ he said. ‘That’s for sure.’

‘But what are you going to do?’ she persisted. ‘What do you want with her?’

‘Vonny!’ called Blake in his powerful bass voice. ‘Come out here!’

There was nothing friendly or compassionate in his manner. If he had learned of Victor’s death from the girlfriend and felt it incumbent on himself to inform Yvonne, he was going about it in a very unpleasant way. Granted, he knew a lot more than Thea did about the Parker family, but it still seemed unforgivable of him to be so loud and aggressive about it.

As Thea expected, there was no response from Yvonne. ‘Stop it!’ she ordered him. ‘She must be asleep.’

‘She’s not asleep. She’s got to take what’s coming to her, and I’m going to make her.’

‘You are not. You’re to leave this house now, or I’ll call the police.’

These words did appear to penetrate his angry brain, and he hesitated, still on the doorstep. Thea seized her chance. ‘I will,’ she repeated. ‘I’ve got the number of the detective superintendent. She’s a friend
of mine. She’s not going to take kindly to you behaving like this. It’s harassment. Whatever grievance you’ve got against Yvonne can be discussed reasonably when she’s feeling better.’

At some point during the past few minutes it had begun to seem as if Blake did not simply want to inform his neighbour of Victor’s death, but to enforce some kind of punishment on her, for reasons Thea could not grasp. He was
personally
angry, thanks to something the Filipina must have told him. And she must have told him within moments of entering his house, because he’d been shouting at
her
before Yvonne returned. There was some logical thread to be grasped, but her head was far too jangled and confused to be able to find it.

The little tableau seemed frozen for a few seconds, as Blake appeared to consider his next move, the two women watching him closely. None of them paid attention to another vehicle pulling up a little way along the lane outside the garden gate. Only when a female voice addressed them did they react.

‘Is Vonny home already? That’s her car, isn’t it?’

Clara Beauchamp stood in the little gateway, wearing jodhpurs and a ribbed jersey. She looked sweaty and dishevelled. Thea found herself thinking that this was quite possibly the first person she had seen, in two years, who completely represented the stereotype of a Cotswold resident. ‘Is something going on?’ Clara added, looking from face to face and resting
curiously on that of the foreigner. ‘Who’s this?’

Nobody replied, but Thea felt some of the tension in Blake drain away. He made a small tutting noise and took a step towards the newcomer. ‘Go away, Clara. How do you always manage to show up at the wrong moment?’

Clara shrugged this off. ‘Where’s Vonny, then? She’s not meant to be back yet, is she?’

‘Mind your own business.’ Blake’s voice had resumed its loud tones, the anger returning. ‘Just go away.’

‘Don’t speak to me like that. I know you, Blake Grossman. Always thinking you know best what’s good for people, forcing yourself on them, telling them what to do. If Vonny doesn’t want to listen to you, then she doesn’t have to, poor thing. Never mind telling me to go away – looks as if it’s
you
that needs to back off. And who
is
this person?’ She pointed a rude finger at Mariella and looked to Thea for an explanation.

‘She’s come from London. She wanted to see Yvonne, but I sent her away. Blake went after her and took her into his house, and started shouting at her, for some reason. Now they both want to speak to Yvonne.’ It sounded rather a masterly summary in her own ears, but Clara seemed bewildered. Obviously she had no idea of what had happened to Victor. The news could hardly have started to spread yet, unless Belinda or perhaps Janice had
chosen to phone all and sundry with it.

Suddenly the sound of a bolt being shot into place came from inside the door. Then that of a key turning in the lock.

‘She’s locked us out!’ exclaimed Blake. He gave Thea a savagely accusing look. ‘This is your fault. We’ve lost our chance now.’

‘Chance for what?’ asked Thea, thinking that Yvonne had probably just done a very sensible thing. She checked to make sure her dog was on the right side of the door, finding it close to her feet, sitting unconcernedly licking its paws.

The atmosphere of conflict dissolved into a group of people standing rather foolishly outside a locked door, each of them deeply confused as to what the others were intending. Blake’s anger had comprehensively embraced all the women, on both sides of the door, but now coalesced around the Filipina. ‘You have to get in there, and talk to her,’ he said urgently. ‘It’s all up to you now.’

The young woman flinched and took several steps towards Clara, who was still some distance away. Thea dimly figured out that Blake believed Mariella was the best person to persuade Yvonne to accept that Victor was dead. The shouting, she supposed, had been his own way of reacting to the news of the second death. There was no sign now that he thought Mariella had committed a murder herself.

Inside the house, the phone began to ring. It was
not answered, as far as they could tell, but stopped after six peals for the automatic messenger to take over. ‘Why doesn’t she answer the phone?’ asked Thea, still aware that many important answers were somewhere inside her head if she could only give herself time to explore them. Every time she thought she was close to understanding something, a new external distraction drove it away again. There was no time or space for methodical thought, with all these incomprehensible people crowding in on her. She fancied she knew just how Yvonne must be feeling.

The road past the house was as quiet as always, but the three cars parked against the garden wall made it seem as if some unusual event was taking place in Hyacinth House. A party, probably, people would think. Another one or two would make a crowd, forcing anything trying to pass to squeeze through slowly, with time for a good look at whatever might be going on. The bumpy atmosphere of dawning crisis was intensifying. Blake was rubbing his chin with a large hand, apparently thinking about his next move. Clara was eyeing Mariella with narrow suspicion, as if trying several hypotheses out, to explain her presence and her effect on Blake. Thea was feeling in her pocket for her mobile, with a growing certainty that the only way out of the impasse was to call Gladwin. And yet nobody seemed actually on the brink of genuine violence or criminality. If there had
not been two murders already, it would seem that little more than a heated discussion had taken place. As it was, Thea’s thundering heart was insisting that there would be no calm or easy outcome to this bewildering evening.

Before she could make the call, a fourth car arrived, as she had somehow known it inevitably would. Clara saw it first and emitted a little yelp that sounded more pleased than alarmed.

‘It’s Mark!’ she announced, going to meet him and hopping impatiently as he got out of his car. She grabbed his arm the moment he emerged, and shook it like an importunate child. ‘Hey, Mark, come and see to your mother. She’s locked herself in the house. Blake’s having one of his rages and there’s a strange woman. Come
on
. Oh, by the way, I saw your car here on Sunday afternoon. I thought you’d come to see us, but you never showed. I want an explanation for that. I got Baskerville all saddled and ready for you, for nothing. I was sure you’d come for a ride.’

Much of this was incomprehensible to Thea, but
her attention snagged on the reference to the car. That surely had to be important.

The foppish young man appeared unfazed by this sudden stream of information, smiling uncertainly from face to face until he reached that of Mariella. ‘Hello, Elly,’ he said with a kind of regretful politeness. ‘What are you doing here?’

She made no reply, seeming less than delighted to see him.

‘You know her, of course,’ said Thea. ‘And you know about your father.’ She searched his face for signs of grief, and discovered grooves around his mouth and shadows under his eyes. It made absolute sense that he would rush to his mother’s side on hearing the news – whether to comfort her or himself was probably unclear even to him. ‘Did you know Yvonne would be here, as well? Isn’t she meant to be in France?’

He ignored her, leaving Clara to address herself to Thea, apparently reassured by the arrival of Mark. ‘Has something happened to Victor?’ she asked.

‘It seems so. That’s what all this is about – I think. I’m sure Yvonne will settle down now Mark’s here and everything’ll be fine.’

‘Right,’ Clara nodded uncertainly. ‘I hope you’re right. Now I do have to get back. I was already late. My husband’s got the horses in the trailer and he’ll expect me to be there when he unloads them. Sorry if I intruded,’ she added stiffly. ‘I just wanted to see
Vonny, that’s all.’ She was already walking back to her car.

‘Everybody wants to see Vonny,’ said Blake, watching her departure with no hint of his earlier fury. Even he, it seemed, was mollified by the arrival of Mark. Only Mariella appeared to have grown more uncomfortable rather than less. Apparently Mark liked her rather more than his sister did, sons being generally a lot more forgiving of their fathers’ peccadilloes than daughters were.

‘But why is she home so early?’ Thea mumbled. ‘What’s everybody
doing
here?’ There were some basic truths coming into focus, which she was trying to use as the foundation for a full explanation. Somebody had stabbed Victor, and his girlfriend had abandoned his dead body. Something suspicious involving Mark’s car had taken place on Sunday – the day Stevie Horsfall had been murdered. Blake thought she, Thea, was stupid for not seeing something obvious. Belinda … Here she ground to a halt. The role of Yvonne’s daughter remained obscure, beyond being the one to discover Victor’s body, prompted by Thea herself. Yvonne had aborted her trip to France and returned in a weirdly blithe mood, which quickly turned to an insane level of avoidance.

Somehow, the thread led to Mariella. Her behaviour was the most bizarre, and she currently appeared to be the most agitated person. Had
she
killed Victor after all, screaming as she did so, and disappearing for the
next two days while she waited for someone to find him?

‘Do you think she’s hiding from … um … Mariella?’ Thea asked Mark. ‘I thought it was Blake, but if he wanted to confront her with her husband’s killer, that would be scary, wouldn’t it?’

Mark shook his head at her. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he said. Then he squared his shoulders. ‘Look – I know where there’s a broken window catch, round the side. I can get in and see if Mum’s okay. You all wait here.’ He spoke in a low voice, which could only mean he did not want Yvonne to hear him from inside the house.

It seemed as good a plan as any to Thea and she nodded. Blake was glaring at her, his scowl back again. She realised he might not take kindly to her remarks. ‘Do you think Mariella killed Victor?’ she asked him boldly.

For reply he merely sighed dramatically and spread his hands. At least he didn’t call her stupid again, she thought ruefully.

‘I did not,’ said the Filipina.

‘But the police might well think you did,’ Blake told her severely. ‘You were an idiot to run away like that.’

Mariella looked warily at Thea, seeming to hope for some female solidarity. ‘This man is very angry with me,’ she confided. ‘For my failings and cowardice. He shouted at me for it. Shouted and shouted.’ She put her hands to her ears at the memory. ‘I told you, both
of you. I do not have the right papers to stay here. I cannot speak to the police.’

‘Irresponsible cow,’ said Blake calmly. ‘All this could have been settled days ago if you’d had any guts.’

‘How?’ demanded Thea. ‘How could it?’

The conversation had made a good smokescreen for Mark at least. He had disappeared around the side of the house, and might well already be inside. Blake gave no reply to her question, which was hardly surprising. They waited, in the last rays of the sun that came across the garden, turning the red and orange flowers vividly exotic. Thea wished she had simply driven home an hour ago, when she had the chance.

‘I still think I ought to call the police,’ she said stubbornly.

‘Whatever for? What good would that do?’

‘We have here a witness to the murder of Victor Parker. That in itself is reason enough. Now we’ve got Yvonne going off her head as well. I think we need backup.’

He laughed contemptuously. ‘Backup! Just who do you think you are, anyway?’

It did seem a fair question, now she paused to think about it. ‘Believe me, I never asked to get involved in all this. You can’t accuse me of that. My loyalties are to Yvonne, when it comes down to it. I think you should just leave her alone.’

‘You’re a fool,’ he said flatly. ‘And an uncharitable one, at that. Why did you turn this poor girl away?’

‘She’s not a poor girl, she’s an illegal immigrant. I’d be harbouring a criminal.’

He gazed at her probingly, his dark eyes searching hers. ‘Really? Is that really what you think? Look at her, damn it!’

Thea shifted uneasily from one foot to the other and glanced at Mariella. Was she truly such a cold-hearted bigot as Blake was suggesting? ‘Yes, I know,’ she muttered. ‘She’s probably a victim of the system. But … I’ve got a daughter in the police. The DS here is my friend. I had to make a choice.’

‘Rubbish!’ he scoffed. ‘You’re in an ideal position to argue her case for her, to make them see she’s no more a criminal than you are.’

‘Okay,’ she capitulated. ‘You’re probably right. But can we discuss it some other time? Mark’s in there trying to convince his mother that his father’s been killed. That’s the important thing now.’

Something softened in Blake’s fierce expression, and she was reminded of his kindness when the hornet stung her, and his affable manner on their early encounters. ‘Poor old Vonny,’ he murmured.

As if released from a strong grip, Thea stepped back, and gazed at an upstairs window, which she believed to be that of Yvonne’s bedroom. ‘She’s sure to let him talk to her, isn’t she?’ she said.

‘Who knows?’ he shrugged.

‘I thought you did,’ she shot back, needing to correct the balance between them, after his verbal
mauling of her. ‘I thought you knew just what had to be done. I thought you had the key to the whole wretched business.’

‘You thought wrong,’ he said. ‘You heard Clara.’

She had forgotten Clara. Her accusations about Blake’s bossy interventions had gone unheeded. ‘Oh. Yes,’ she said. ‘I suppose I did.’

The front door opened without warning and Mark’s face appeared. ‘Thea – will you come in please. Blake – you’ll have to go away. She’s not going to talk to you or Mariella, however much you try to force her.’

‘That was quick!’ Thea said, as she looked around for her dog, and made for the door. ‘You’ve only been gone a minute.’

‘Yes … well …’ he said unhelpfully, and almost dragged her inside, closing the door in Blake’s face.

‘I can climb through windows as well as you,’ Blake shouted from outside. ‘Just see if I can’t.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ Mark called back. ‘I haven’t locked you out. I’m relying on you to be sensible. Just go. I’ll come and see you in the morning. Nobody’s going anywhere before then.’

It seemed a very rash promise, to Thea. How could he be so sure? The whole surreal situation began to feel like a parody of a thriller film, where instead of people charging around with guns, shouting threats at each other and climbing onto roofs in a highly unintelligent bid to escape, they just stood around being very British and reasonable until somebody
broke down and explained how and when and why they’d committed the crime.

There was no sign of Yvonne, but Mark pointed towards the kitchen, where Thea went to find her. She was sitting placidly at the table, as if nothing unusual were happening. A cat was on her lap and a sheet of yellow paper lay on the table in front of her. ‘Have you been in here all along?’ Thea demanded.

‘Most of the time,’ she said. ‘I locked you all out because you were being so noisy.’

Was the woman actually mad, Thea wondered? Should this thought not have occurred to her earlier? With responses so inappropriate to the situation, madness had to be the reason, almost by definition.

But what
was
the situation? Blake had been shouting. The Filipina was carrying vitally important information about a murder. Clara had been curious to learn why Yvonne had returned early. Victor was dead. There definitely was a situation to be addressed, but when she tried to grasp the essential bones of it, it evaporated into smoke.

Mark was tinkering with cutlery on the draining board, tapping two teaspoons together meditatively. Nobody would ever guess that he had just climbed in through a side window, Thea thought. ‘Mu-u-u-um,’ he said, very slowly, ‘Clara just told me she saw my car here in the village on Sunday. I thought it was in Evesham all day, while I was at the conference. Isn’t that weird?’

‘You came here in it on Monday,’ said Thea helpfully. ‘You told me you’d driven from where you live, on the Welsh border.’

‘No, I didn’t say that. I just told you where I lived. I was in Evesham on Saturday and most of Sunday, staying at the Royal William Hotel, which was holding the conference. I’d been looking forward to it for ages. It’s the high spot of my year. I came here early on Monday, straight from there.’

‘Why exactly
did
you come here?’ It wasn’t the question she wanted to ask. The important thing lay somewhere else, but she could not quite identify the spot.

‘Belinda thought something was up. I told you – I had to come and see if you were … I mean, exactly how you got involved with Gudrun and Stevie.’

‘But Clara said the car was here on Sunday, not Monday.’

‘It wasn’t. It was in Evesham.’

‘So Clara got it wrong? It can’t have been here, can it?’

‘Mum?’ Mark tried again. ‘Say something.’

Yvonne met his eyes with an untroubled gaze. ‘I borrowed it,’ she said simply. ‘You know I’ve got a spare key.’ She looked at Thea with a little smile. ‘It was mine originally, you see. I gave it to Markie when I got the new one.’

‘But you were in
London,
’ said Thea urgently, desperate to deny the implications of the three calm words –
I borrowed it.

‘Yes. But I came back. After I’d seen Victor.’

‘And you went to France.’ Thea was almost pleading for confirmation that at least some of her most solid assumptions were based on firm ground.

‘I found the letter.’ Yvonne spoke dreamily, tapping the paper in front of her. ‘Victor had it in his Filofax. It’s from the DNA people.’ She looked at Mark as if expecting him to understand. ‘About Stevie.’

Something was happening to Mark. He had become sharper, his eyes tightening in sudden acute focus. ‘Letter?’ he repeated, in a low voice.

‘He dropped it, when he was looking for Belinda’s wedding list. I recognised it. It came here, five years ago, and I thought it was telling him he had cancer or leukaemia or something.’ She laughed. ‘I was worried about him. When he said he was leaving me, for no reason, I thought he was trying to protect me. I pleaded with him to explain, to give me something to tell the neighbours – and you and Belinda, of course. He just said the marriage was over and he was going to start a new life in London. I searched for this letter afterwards, but never found it. I thought he was
dying
.’

‘Don’t laugh, Mother. It isn’t funny.’

‘Hang on,’ begged Thea. ‘Are we talking about Stevie’s paternity?’

Mother and son both turned towards her. ‘It has nothing to do with you,’ said Yvonne politely. ‘I confronted him, of course, on Sunday,’ she went on. ‘He told me they’d muddled it up, and you were the
real father.’ She looked at Mark. ‘He said you’d been to bed with Gudrun when you were nineteen.’

Thea’s mind was moving sluggishly, clogged with implications and wild guesses that led nowhere. But Yvonne’s transparent lie was unmissable. ‘Rather a big muddle,’ she remarked. ‘Seeing that Mark’s DNA would be totally different from Victor’s.’

‘Honestly,’ insisted Yvonne, with a dreadful little giggle. ‘That’s what he told me. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him for a few minutes.’ She looked timidly at Mark, as if hoping for his support.

‘He’s a bloody liar!’ roared her son, after a long silence in which it seemed his brain was as stunned as Thea’s.

‘Yes,’ nodded Yvonne, smiling. ‘That’s what I thought.’

‘But you’re something even worse,’ Mark choked out. Then he flung out of the room. Seconds later, sounds of terrible breakage came from the living room.

‘Stop him!’ cried Yvonne leaping up from her chair. ‘He’s smashing all my things.’

 

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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