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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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‘Bit drastic,’ remarked Thea.

‘It’s a drastic business,’ he said severely. ‘So much can go wrong – as Vonny would tell you if she was here.’

‘I assume Victor took up with another woman?’

Blake’s eyelids dropped, giving him a sly appearance.
He turned his head aside and examined the colourful flowers intently. ‘That’s what we all assumed. But Vonny would never say exactly what happened to split them up.’

‘Probably too painful to talk about. She said she felt humiliated.’

‘Poor old girl. She really does need to move on.’

Thea felt uneasy, now that gossip seemed to be finally under way. That Victor had behaved badly seemed axiomatic – and her impression of him from his phone call had not been favourable. But more pressing now was the question of what might have happened to Yvonne in the course of the day.

Blake, however, seemed to have settled any initial worries he might have been feeling, and was intent on conveying what he knew of the couple. ‘I don’t get why he’s in Crouch End,’ he said, with a little pout of puzzlement. ‘He was renting a swish apartment in Hampstead Garden Suburb as far as I knew. Don’t you love the sound of Hampstead Garden Suburb?’ he added incongruously. ‘It conjures such a lot in those three words.’

‘The point is, I’m not quite sure of my position, if my employer’s missing,’ Thea said, with some emphasis. ‘I ought to find out whether she’s okay.’ She refrained from mentioning that she had previously experienced the death of a homeowner whilst caring for the house, and it had led to considerable confusion and complication. She was not keen for a repetition.

‘I can understand how you feel,’ he said, as if this was a brilliantly helpful remark. ‘But I don’t suppose she’ll stay lost for long. I know old Vonny pretty well. She’s a survivor.’

The implication was that Blake regarded himself as in some sort of relationship with Yvonne, the exact nature of which was unclear. ‘It’s a pity
you
couldn’t have watched the house,’ she said tiredly, ‘instead of going off on holiday.’

‘I know,’ he said carelessly. ‘Terribly bad timing. Plus I don’t like cats very much.’

I see,
thought Thea suspiciously.
So
it’s possibly rather auspicious timing, after all
. Something about this man struck her as slightly too good to be true, as if he was playing a part, when his real attention was somewhere quite different. Which it probably was, with his girlfriend in Palestine and his own bags needing to be packed. But she had been given reason to think he actually cared what happened to Hyacinth House, its owner and its temporary sitter. Not just because the gardens had become connected, but from something less definable and more to do with feelings. Besides, he was, at that moment, all she had.

‘I’ll be left on my own, then,’ she said, feeling a daft kinship with the despised Victor. ‘How long will you be gone?’

‘Only five days. Back next Thursday, all being well. It’s business actually, not a holiday. Can’t be ducked, or I’d have helped poor old Vonny out, of course.’

‘Well …’ she began helplessly. ‘Not much I can do, I suppose. The cats still have to be fed.’

‘True. And the homestead guarded. You’ll be fine,’ he assured her, with the sort of expression that suggested quite the opposite.

She nodded and turned away. In her hand, the phone jingled and she read a message on the screen:

Mum – I need to talk to you. Can you call me asap?
Jess.

Her daughter was a probationary police officer in Manchester; a bright confident girl who had coped bravely with the loss of her father when she was nineteen, scarcely breaking step on her career path. Thea had been less successful in adapting to unimagined widowhood, the house-sitting a desperate attempt at distraction a year after Carl’s fatal accident. It had worked well, on the whole.

Jessica answered the phone within seconds. ‘What’s the matter?’ Thea demanded.

The answer came without prevarication. ‘It’s Paul. He’s dumped me.’ The voice was thick with tears and Thea’s heart turned a painful somersault.

‘Oh, darling! When?’

‘Yesterday. He was so
horrible
about it. He tried to do it in a text and when I phoned him he said
terrible
 
things to me. Some of them about you.’

‘But
why
?’ It was a silly question, but words were proving difficult. This was a totally shocking turn of events. Last time she’d seen Jessica and Paul, she’d begun to worry that they might be planning permanent togetherness. Had the young detective been aware of her reservations, which she thought she had kept well hidden?

‘He says we’re both racist, and he never felt comfortable around you.’

Likewise,
thought Thea. But it had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with his arrogant insensitive personality. She had also begun to suspect the existence of a hidden streak of cruelty in her last encounter with him, which Jessica now appeared to be confirming.

‘But surely …’ Again words were hard to find. ‘You poor girl. You sound dreadfully upset.’

‘I’ve been crying all day. I had to call in sick. I can’t go to work like this.’

‘It’s the shock.’

‘It’s much more than that. I had no
idea
. He must have lied to me the whole time, pretending he felt the same as me about us. I feel like a victim, absolutely powerless to do anything about it.’

Thea could readily understand that – the helplessness in the face of implacable forces working against you. The bruised and battered emotions that nothing could assuage. ‘Do you want to come here?’ she asked, with
a sense of history repeating itself. Over the many house-sitting commissions she’d undertaken, her two sisters had used her as a refuge, one after the other. Jessica too had joined her once or twice. In general, such episodes turned out badly and Thea had concluded she preferred to have the places to herself. Although there were exceptions, she inwardly admitted.

‘No, no. I can’t. It wouldn’t help. Not at the moment, anyway. I never know what I’m going to find when I visit you in one of your houses.’

‘I know.’ Thea forced a laugh. ‘And this one’s already getting complicated.’

‘Don’t tell me.’

‘Well …’

‘No, I mean it.
Don’t tell me
. I’ve got enough to worry about.’ The tear-choked voice was sounding stronger, for which Thea was thankful.

‘Okay. Have you got someone there you can cry on? What about Sasha?’

‘Yeah, she’s been great. It happened to her last year, so she understands. She says she never liked Paul anyway. I wish she’d told me sooner.’

‘You wouldn’t have listened. That’s what girlfriends do – they wait on the sidelines, ready to pick up the pieces. That’s all they
can
do.’

Thea had never met Sasha, and had not realised how close the two girls were until Jessica made some casual mention of the effect her relationship with Paul was having on the friendship. It seemed the boyfriend had
insisted on exclusive rights over her, virtually banning all outings with Sasha or other female friends.

‘Right.’ Jessica sounded doubtful, as if wary of accepting any pearls of maternal wisdom. ‘Maybe.’

‘Some things don’t change,’ her mother told her. ‘Certainly not this sort of thing. I do know how it feels, honestly.’

‘So what about your undertaker friend?’ Jessica asked, in an apparent change of subject.

‘What about him?’

‘Have you seen him lately?’

‘His wife’s in hospital, fighting for her life, as far as I know. He’s unlikely to have time to think about me.’
No
, she thought.
That isn’t what I meant to say
.

‘Poor chap. I forgot there was a wife.’

‘Of course there is. Don’t you remember when he went off to phone her, in Broad Campden? How that led to all sorts of trouble?’

‘Vaguely, now you mention it. That seems ages ago now.’

‘Four months,’ said Thea, thinking that it did indeed seem very much longer. A lot had happened in the meantime. She also wished that her daughter had not raised the subject of Drew Slocombe. No good at all could come of it.

‘Anyway – thanks for listening. I might call you again if I need to vent, if that’s okay?’

‘Of course it is. It’s called “venting” now, is it?’

‘Keep up, Ma. You’re nowhere near as old as you
like to pretend. Haven’t you signed on to Twitter yet? That’ll keep you in the mainstream. Or Facebook.’

‘I just might do that. Don’t write me off yet.’

Jessica gave a faint sniff of laughter. ‘Thanks, anyway. I feel a bit better now.’

‘That’s what I’m here for,’ said her mother, in all sincerity. ‘You’ll be okay, you know. Don’t let him damage you. He’s not worth it.’

‘Tell me that again in a few weeks’ time. At the moment, I still think I love him. If he turned up now with a bunch of flowers, I’d take him back in a heartbeat.’

‘I imagine you would,’ said Thea, aware that her timing had been off. ‘But it would never be the same after this. Phone me again tomorrow, will you? I want to be kept informed. Whatever happens, don’t brood on your own. Go out and see people.’ The idea of her daughter sitting in her flat, weeping over the unworthy boyfriend, made her want to abandon Snowshill and rush to Jessica’s side. ‘When are you supposed to be at work next?’

‘Tomorrow. I don’t know whether I can face it. I might see
him
.’

‘Well, turn up if you can. Don’t let him think he’s won.’

‘I didn’t know we were in a fight,’ the girl wailed. ‘I thought he loved me.’

Thea made a wordless murmur of sympathy, and the conversation ended.

She spent the evening stewing over the beast that was Detective Constable Paul Middleman. That he could hurt her stalwart Jess was outrageous, and entirely unnecessary. Why couldn’t he have finished with her in a dignified manner, letting her down gently, finding the courage to talk it over with her in an adult fashion? And to throw in wild accusations about racism was thoroughly despicable. As far as Thea had been able to see, his ethnicity had been readily assimilated into the relationship, a mildly interesting detail that came second to their work and their feelings for each other. At least, so she had assured herself, as it slowly dawned on her that he really wasn’t a very nice person. The discomfort this realisation brought with it was almost entirely due to fears for Jessica’s happiness – of course it was. But it also contained a thread of worry that it wasn’t comfortable to dislike a black person. She had talked about it briefly with Drew, who had reassuringly understood.

She ought not to be thinking about Drew. During her recent stint in Cranham, looking after a handsome manor house and an old man in its lodge, Drew had come to visit her. But she had not seen him since then. His wife, Karen, had collapsed at the beginning of June and was still in hospital almost two months later. Thea had phoned for news once or twice, only to be given a terse ‘no change’ and an unspoken instruction to stay out of his life.
And quite right too
, she told herself firmly. Never mind that they had worked so
well as a team, that his children had taken to her with enthusiasm, that she hugely admired his alternative funeral business. All his attention and time must go to Karen, obviously it must. Having been shot in the head a few years earlier, Karen had never quite returned to her former self; now, it seemed, some unidentified damage had been simmering deep in her brain, only to erupt, dramatically and shatteringly for the family.

But what if Karen died
?
nagged a wicked little voice.
What would happen then
? But she wouldn’t die. The doctors would work out a treatment, would devise a brilliant piece of microsurgery that would restore her to perfect robustness. That was what they did – especially when the patient was a thirty-six-year-old mother of two. Nobody was going to let her die without an epic medical struggle.

Jessica – that was where her thoughts ought to lie. Her poor unhappy daughter, suffering her first major romantic reversal, humiliated and betrayed. Thea could well understand the difficulties Jess would have in going back to work and facing the dubious sympathy of her colleagues. Police officers were notoriously flippant about matters of the heart. Jokes would be made, callous remarks exchanged. The loss of dignity would be impossible to conceal, when both parties were working in the same team. Paul would be in and out of her workspace, forcing Jessica to speak to him in the line of duty. The best hope was that an unusually sensitive senior officer would ensure that
this didn’t happen for at least a few days. There would probably be lectures about the folly of embarking on a relationship with a close-working colleague. There were probably rules against it, which would be virtually impossible to enforce, but which did make good sense. The girl would learn some useful lessons in the course of her suffering, but Thea knew all too well that this would bring no consolation at all in the short term.

And Yvonne Parker, who had gone missing. This was another urgent subject that she ought to be thinking about. It mattered a great deal, after all. If the woman didn’t turn up, then she, Thea, was unlikely to be paid for her work. She would have to apply to the husband, or possibly the son or the soon-to-be-married daughter living somewhere in Wales.

She mentally tested a variety of hypotheses as to where her employer might have gone. The story about her broken marriage already had two versions which did not entirely match up. Something odd and mysterious had led to the departure of Victor, according to Blake from next door. Yvonne herself had said something about being humiliated and made ill by the break-up. She had not appeared to be especially secretive about it, despite Blake’s implications. If she had experienced a powerful loss of nerve, somewhere on the M4, that didn’t strike Thea as altogether unexpected. She was very likely cowering anonymously in a B&B while she tried to
regain her courage. Given her timid dithering manner, this seemed altogether plausible. Other more dramatic ideas were dismissed. Loss of memory; abduction; a deliberate plan involving extensive lies and deceits – all felt utterly wrong in the light of the woman’s personality. Even the possibility that she had been the victim of violence felt unconvincing. Why would anybody bother to kidnap such a feeble creature?

But if she hadn’t materialised by the end of the next day, something would have to be done. Victor might call the police, of course, if he was as genuinely worried as he sounded. Thea herself would feel increasingly impelled to take action, if only to inform Yvonne’s husband that she needed some sort of assurance that she would be paid.

She ate a scrappy meal and took the dog outside to catch the last rays of the summer sun. The village in the hollow down to the left seemed to be comatose and there was a peaceful silence. Lights were coming on in the few windows she could see from the garden, and she noticed a watery beam coming from amongst the crocosmia in one of Yvonne’s flower beds. Closer examination showed it to be a solar-powered light, placed inexplicably amidst the flowers. Over the next ten minutes she found three more, barely visible in the densely packed beds. Once darkness fell, they might make better sense, she supposed. Having charged themselves up during the sunny day, they could well give a healthy light – perhaps even enough to prove
annoying to anybody eager to avoid light pollution, as Thea was.

Idly, she poked about, searching for more of the lights. No two were the same, and she assumed they must form another kind of collection, like the stuff in the house. As she gently moved the tall flowers aside, without any warning she was attacked by an unseen assailant, which inflicted a sharp pain in her lower arm. It was impossibly intense and she ran blindly onto the tiny lawn, swiping at the affected spot, in case the attacker was still there. ‘What on earth was it?’ she demanded shrilly of the indifferent garden. Her dog was close by, watching her with a wholly unhelpful alertness. ‘Oooh,’ she moaned as the pain got steadily worse. She cradled her arm, swaying from side to side, gripped by a deepening agony, trying to think lucidly.

With muddled intentions, she made for the house. It seemed she could walk quite steadily, her faculties still functioning. Had it been a snake, she wondered? Surely she would have seen it. It could only have been an insect of some kind – but what could have such a terrible sting as this? Normally an assault by a wasp or bee hurt acutely for a minute or two and then abated. This was still as bad as at first, if not worse.

She went into the kitchen and switched on the bright central light. The place on her arm was already swelling and red. She held it under the cold tap, which made little difference, and tried to remember what one was meant to do. Hold the arm up high? Or did
that send the poison directly to your heart and kill you? Suck it out? Rub it with butter? In the bathroom there was probably an assortment of remedies such as antihistamine or that chalky pink stuff she could never remember the name of. It was meant for sunburn, which implied a cooling effect. The arm was still swelling, she noted, and really very hot. The pain seemed to have reached the bone, a circle of aching wrongness that made her want to cry.

‘Can I help?’

The voice came from the doorway, and she flinched, part alarmed, part ready to throw herself onto any possible rescuer.

‘I’ve been stung,’ she gasped. ‘It’s agony.’

‘Hornet,’ nodded Blake calmly. ‘There’s a nest of them in your roof. I thought that must be it, so I brought this.’ He held out a tube of ointment, and proceeded to unscrew the cap.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
13.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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