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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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She followed a blog, selected at random, in which a keen walker had passed through this very spot a year ago, and seen a ghost in the Gents of the Snowshill Arms. Convinced of its authenticity, he had researched the history of the area and discovered a monastery on the site, with taverns and inns provided for travellers. Always fascinated by history, Thea lost herself in imaginings of bygone days on the very spot where she was sitting.

It passed a very pleasant twenty minutes, Hepzie contentedly flopped at her side. At the end of it, she had perused a repetitive series of accounts of the Manor and the man who had bought it in 1919, who dabbled in black magic in the attics and entertained famous writers, several of whom found his growing collection of bizarre objects more than a little strange. Lots of people were perfectly certain that there were ghosts abroad in Snowshill, though almost entirely confined to the eccentric Manor. Nobody else had seen a wraith in the Gents at the pub.

And still the boyish features of Drew Slocombe hovered before her mind’s eye, more insistent than
any ghost could be. She wanted to know how his wife was doing, whether his business was suffering badly while he was occupied at Karen’s bedside, and what was happening to his children.

Then, within five minutes, as if she had conjured him by the power of thought, a text popped up on the screen.

Are you in the Cotswolds again? If so, would you be able to go and see Mrs Simmonds’ grave? I haven’t been for months as you can imagine. The field could do with a check, too. Best, Drew.

It was such a polite and formal message, she laughed aloud, startling her dog. Perhaps Drew too had a shiny new phone which could compose and send messages almost telepathically, with little of the painful laborious thumbing that there had been a year or two before. He certainly seemed to have mastered it at last.

She sent a quick reply.

No problem. Hope things are ok? Thea.

A shadow falling across her legs made her look up. A tall woman stood over her, her back to the sun, making her face hard to see clearly. ‘You’ve been sitting there for ages, playing with that phone.’ The tone held a hint of accusation.

‘I was reading about Snowshill. Did you know that
Charles Paget Wade was a vampire?’

‘Rubbish. Of course he wasn’t.’

‘It’s a good story, though. Especially these days when vampires are all the rage.’

‘“All the rage”?’ The repetition of the phrase was made with amused scorn. ‘What an old-fashioned thing to say.’

‘I’m not making a very good impression, am I?’ said Thea, rather seriously. ‘Let me stand up, and I won’t feel at such a disadvantage.’

‘Don’t bother. I’ll sit down. I could do with a rest.’

The newcomer sank onto the wooden seat and turned sideways, offering a hand. ‘I’m Clara Beauchamp,’ she said formally. ‘I live here.’

‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Thea Osborne, house-sitting for Yvonne Parker. I assume you know her?’

‘Oh yes. We never thought she’d finally bite the bullet, though. You know, she hasn’t seen Victor since he left. And that’s been years now.’

‘Five, apparently.’

‘Blimey! Is it really? Feels like last week.’

Thea wanted to retort ‘
Blimey’? Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned
?
but she kept her peace. ‘Do you know a badly behaved child called Stevie? Must be nine or ten, and appears to run wild.’

Clara Beauchamp’s face tightened. ‘Little swine. He’s the bane of all our lives. You should watch out for that dog of yours.’ Hepzie met the woman’s eye with placid unconcern.

‘His mother struck me as more than capable of keeping him under control, if she made the effort. If he’s like that now, what’ll he be doing when he’s sixteen?’

‘She does her best, I suppose. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s tempting to think the kid was born bad. The whole exercise was doomed from the start.’

‘Oh?’ Thea met the woman’s eyes, registering her as roughly her own age, big-boned and fair-haired. A faint whiff of horse seemed to emanate from her, which probably explained Hepzie’s interested sniffing of her legs.

‘It’s a long story. And a lot of it’s just gossip and supposition, anyway. Two centuries ago, she’d have been labelled as a witch.’

‘Witches
and
vampires! I seem to have blundered into a time warp here.’ And indeed, that was how she was beginning to feel. Genuinely feral children were definitely unknown in the twenty-first century.

‘This village hasn’t changed so very much in that time, in some respects. The Manor has always brought visitors who spread stories about it and give Snowshill a reputation for weirdness.’ She waved an expressive hand at a high wall beyond the pub. Beyond it Thea could just see a roof, apparently belonging to a large old building.

‘Is
that
the Manor?’ she said with a frown. ‘I thought it was a mile or more away, from the signs.’

Clara Beauchamp laughed. ‘It’s a trick. You have to
drive nearly half a mile to the car park, and then walk back on yourself. You can’t even get in on foot from the centre of the village.’

‘I’m amazed,’ Thea confessed. ‘That seems like something in a dream, or maybe an optical illusion.’ She shook her head, wondering why she found it so startling. ‘And those little houses. They’ve all got National Trust colours to the paintwork.’ She was focused on a row of small dwellings that looked like almshouses. The dark greeny-blue was repeated on a doorway at the end of the Manor wall. The sense of unreality intensified.

Clara laughed again. ‘It’s always good fun, watching people realise how it all fits together. Often they come back three or four times before the penny drops.’

‘It’s a whole other world,’ said Thea, not quite sure that she liked it.

‘We
are
rather cut off,’ Clara agreed. ‘Especially when it snows. And it
does
snow here, quite a lot. The parish council even has a snow warden, would you believe?’

‘Stevie,’ prompted Thea. ‘Tell me more.’

‘Okay – his mother, Gudrun, is a single parent, had him when she was forty-four. Her only one. Invested everything in him. Spoilt him rotten, so he thinks he rules the world.’

‘Good-run?’ Thea repeated. ‘Is that what you said?’

‘G-U-D-R-U-N. Like in
Women in Love,
the D.H. Lawrence novel. It’s Swedish or German or something,
I think. Awful name, if you ask me.’

‘She doesn’t look remotely Scandinavian.’

‘No. I assume her mother liked the book, same as mine. Except it was
Sons and Lovers
in my case.’

Thea grimaced helplessly. ‘You’ve lost me. I don’t think I’ve ever read any Lawrence.’

Clara Beauchamp’s cheerful laugh erupted for a third time. ‘You’re too young. Our mothers were mad about him – yours too, I expect. He was “all the rage” in the sixties, apparently. In any case, it gives me and Gudrun something in common.’ She used her fingers to draw the inverted commas in the air.

Precious
little
, thought Thea, remembering the gypsy-like woman. ‘She must be a lot older than she looks. I guessed about forty-eight.’

‘She’ll be fifty-four next week, as it happens. She was born two days before my eldest sister – who is furious about it, because on a bad day she can look at least sixty. Not fair at all when you consider how much she spends on anti-ageing stuff. Gudrun just has the right bones and skin, apparently.’

‘Does Stevie have a father?’

Clara’s face constricted, her mouth clamped shut. Thea waited, head slightly cocked, eyes wide. The reply, when it came, was disappointing. ‘Nobody knows who he was. There are various malicious stories but I don’t believe any of them. Gudrun has never told a soul, to my knowledge. Certainly, if she has, that person knows how to keep a secret.’

‘I get the impression that you like her?’ Thea hazarded. ‘You think Gudrun’s all right?’

‘That’s entirely the wrong question. She’s elemental, a free spirit, a force to be reckoned with. It’s not a matter of
liking
her. Most of us just gaze on with open mouths as she forges through life without a second thought. Gudrun gets what she wants, without ever thinking about it. Even when it turns out to be a huge mistake, she doesn’t agonise, like other people would.’

‘So you’re saying Stevie was a huge mistake?’

‘Oh yes. About as huge as they come.’

‘Poor little chap,’ said Thea sadly.

Sunday lunch was a late affair, comprising a bowl of soup and a cheese sandwich. Catering for herself during the house-sitting commissions was sometimes difficult and frequently boring. Now and then she would be given free access to a well-stocked freezer, as part of the deal. More usually, she was expected to fend for herself, driving ten miles or more to a supermarket in one of the larger towns. Often she grabbed basic necessities in small expensive village shops, or those attached to petrol stations. Occasional meals in local pubs were disproportionately welcomed, as a result.

It had been a relief to meet and talk to Clara Beauchamp, who had vaguely offered her company one evening in the following week, if Thea felt the need. ‘I live with my boyfriend, half a mile from here,’ she said. ‘And my mother’s in that house there.’ She
had pointed to a classic Cotswold cottage halfway down the street. ‘I work in Cirencester, so I’m never here during the day. Rupert’s in town all week, so it would be nice if you could come over. I’ve got Yvonne’s landline number – I’ll call you. Or should I take yours?’ She eyed the BlackBerry still in Thea’s hand.

With a small effort, Thea recited her mobile number.
How Phil would approve
, she thought ruefully. Only a year before, she had been wilfully technophobic, much to her lover’s irritation. Now, not only was she enthusiastically using the thing, the yet more resistant Drew Slocombe was blithely sending texts, and perhaps even developing a website for his business.

Now she wished she had somebody she might phone for a long lazy Sunday chat, mentally reviewing possible candidates. Still mildly haunted by her dream of the night before, she paused at the thought of her sister Jocelyn, revising her earlier careless dismissal of the idea of calling her. Two years earlier Joss had spent a few days with her in Frampton Mansell, and since then they had seen little of each other. There were five children in the family, which meant there were very few opportunities for long lazy chats, besides which, it was not their habit to call each other. But it was worth a try, perhaps, especially in the light of the dream.

Jocelyn’s husband answered the phone, sounding impatient. ‘Oh, Thea … hello. What’s the trouble?’

‘No trouble at all. I just wondered if I could have a little chat with Joss.’

‘She’s upstairs. Hang on.’

Already Thea was regretting the impulse. Casual conversations about nothing were a waste of time. Her family had never gone in for such stuff, which meant that Jocelyn would leap to the same conclusion as her husband had, and assume there was a problem.

‘Thea? What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing. I’m bored, that’s all. Are you busy?’

‘No more than usual. Where are you?’

‘Snowshill, if you know where that is.’

‘Not the foggiest. Is it snowing?’

‘Not today. Apparently it does, quite a lot, in the due season.’

‘Is it nice?’

‘It’s fantastically lovely. Same gorgeous old houses as there are all over the region. Plus a famous manor for good measure.’

‘Sounds okay.’

‘How about you? What’re you doing for the summer? Mum said you might go to the Shetlands – can that be right? With the whole family?’

‘Yes, it’s all fixed. We leave on Wednesday and get the ferry. Everybody’s wildly excited.’

‘What an adventure. Lucky I caught you, then.’

‘Thea – are you really okay? You sound odd. Sort of
drained
. What’s the house like? Have you got loads to do?’

‘It’s stuffed full of knick-knacks. Hepzie and I daren’t move in case we break something. But no,
there’s hardly any work. That’s why I’m bored.’

‘Have you met any people?’

‘One or two. Nobody interesting. Oh – Jessica’s boyfriend has dumped her. She’s dreadfully upset, poor girl.’

‘The swine! You never did like him, did you?’

‘Not much. But I didn’t think he’d be as rotten as this. He did it by text, apparently.’

‘They’ve all forgotten how to speak face-to-face. Mine are getting to be the same.’

‘I’ve got very fond of my BlackBerry, I must admit.’

‘Pooh! A BlackBerry is very yesterday, dear. It’s moved on since then.’

‘Don’t tell me that. I don’t think I could face starting again with something else. Anyway – it does so many things, how can a new version be any better?’

‘Don’t ask me. Anyway, I can hear ructions in the garden. I’ll have to go. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time there. The weather’s good, and you can go and explore that manor.’

‘Yes, I can. Go on then and quell the riot. And have a lovely holiday.’

‘Thanks, we will. Bye, then.’

Thea disconnected the call with a rare feeling of warm sisterhood. She should value Jocelyn more highly, spend more time with her, keep up the bond between them. Their older brother, Damien, was difficult and distant, since becoming a committed Christian and trying to make them see how fulfilled
and inspired he was. When they politely wished him well, but failed to adopt the same all-consuming faith, he had withdrawn from them. Their sister Emily was distant for other reasons, which nobody in the family could bring themselves to discuss.

Her arm was almost better, the terrible pain of the hornet sting almost as forgotten as the much more distant throes of childbirth – which had been far from excruciating anyway. Nonetheless, she harboured a persistent nervousness about the front garden, as well as an irritation with the overstuffed interior of the house. Sitting in the kitchen, she sipped coffee and wondered where she might spend the afternoon.

Yvonne’s cats were slowly coming to accept her presence, slinking sinuously across the floor to crouch under the table, side by side. Hepzibah ignored them, having found a chair to her liking in the living room. It was positioned beneath the window, where sunshine fell for most of the afternoon. Thea had removed a hand-embroidered cushion from the seat and permitted the dog to curl up on the upholstery, promising to herself that she would give it a thorough brushing on her final day.

As on the previous day, traffic flow past the house was sporadic as people headed for Snowshill Manor. Where did they all come from, she wondered? How far afield would people travel to see a motley accumulation of Japanese armoury, old clocks, Victorian toys, boxes, machines and a thousand other things? You looked,
but couldn’t touch. As far as she could understand it, there was no narrative, little chronology and a strong sense of pointless eccentricity. Yes, she would have to go and see it for herself, but the real interest lay in what had been hidden away in the secret attic room, which the National Trust had very sensibly banished to more esoteric realms where such objects were better understood. Nobody could accuse the National Trust of having any truck with witchcraft, with their wholesome teas and carefully labelled gardens.

Somehow she had entangled the sinister-sounding Charles Paget Wade with the delinquent lad, Stevie. There was a hint of malevolence surrounding them both – Wade with his sudden startling leaps from hidden passages, Stevie with his sticks and stones designed to damage. Wade had spent his younger years in the West Indies, amongst practitioners of voodoo and wild tales of zombies and black magic. Stevie had presumably spent his entire life being spoilt and indulged by his mother in a remote English village. Even the neighbours who regarded him as a menace appeared to accept him as a necessary element in their lives. Yvonne had given no advance warning of his predations. Perhaps he had just been having a bad day, and should be given a chance to redeem himself – especially after Clara’s disclosures, minimal though they had been.

There was a limited range of choices as to how to pass the afternoon. She could drive to a local beauty
spot and walk the dog again. She could wander back down the track past Gudrun’s house and follow the official footpath leading to Dulverton Wood. Or, she remembered, she could go to Broad Campden and check out Drew’s incipient burial ground. He had put the whole enterprise on hold when his wife fell ill, but the local council had already given outline permission for him to establish a modestly sized woodland cemetery, and he had effortlessly gained ownership of a house in the middle of the village. Funny he hadn’t asked her to go and look at that as well, she thought. As far as she knew it was standing empty, with no firm plans for its future.

Outside, the sky was clouding over, some thickening grey areas hinting at rain. That would be very bad news, confining her to the house and all its oppressive contents.

‘Come on, then,’ she called the dog. ‘We’ll just go for a little drive, shall we? I need to get milk and fruit, anyway.’

Her car was parked just beyond the front hedge, there being no allotted space for vehicles within the official curtilage of the house. Hyacinth House did not possess so much as a garden shed. The lawnmower and a few tools lived under a flimsy overhanging device at the back of the house, supported by two wooden posts, without walls or doors.

As she reached the small gate which opened onto the road, she unlocked the car from a yard or so distant
with the button on her keyring. The driver’s side was closest to the wall, so she went to the passenger door to admit the dog, who had been sniffing at something just beyond the vehicle. Then she walked around the front, heading for the driver’s door. But she never reached it. Lying crumpled on the grass, face down, legs sprawling, was a small body with very fair hair.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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