Authors: Rebecca Tope
Her mind froze, her only sensation a violent urge to find the child’s mother and bring her to him. He belonged to her with a primitive irrational sense of rightness that could not be resisted. Having paused only to turn him over and ascertain from the inert white face and tightly constricted neck that he was dead, she went flying down the track to Gudrun’s cottage. Not, she noted later, across the road to Janice and Ruby. Nor into the village where she could stand by the church and scream for help. Only one thought filled her head – the mother must be summoned.
Breathlessly, she ran round to the back, following a brick path becoming slippery in the first minutes of a heavy rain shower. ‘Gudrun!’ she shouted, throwing as much breath and energy into the word as she could muster. ‘Are you there?’
There was a sound from within the house of a chair being scraped over a stone floor, and then a low ‘Yeah? Who’s that?’
‘It’s me,’ called Thea unhelpfully, and threw open the door, unable to wait for Gudrun to gather herself.
‘What d’you want? I was just having a bit of a rest. I was cutting up logs all morning.’ She looked out at the sky. ‘Raining, is it? Thought it would. Where’s Stevie got to? Has he been up to his mischief again?’
‘He’s at my house – I mean, Yvonne’s house. You’ve got to come. He’s—’ For the first time, she wondered what in the world she was thinking of, fetching the woman to witness the cruel killing of her only child. She almost backed away, hands aloft, saying she was sorry, it was nothing, just a silly mistake. Instead she looked away, focusing on the tidy pile of logs in a lean-to shed a few yards away.
‘What? He’s what? Hurt himself, you mean? Wait a minute – let me get my boots on.’ Gudrun thrust her feet into a pair of black wellingtons standing just inside the door. ‘Did you call an ambulance? How bad is he? Can’t he walk?’
Thea led the way back up to the road, saying nothing. She could barely hear the questions being fired at her, her mind full of the image of the boy’s small lifeless face, and the tight cord around his neck.
He lay where she’d left him, the rain starting to form a faint frosting on his clothes. As Gudrun rushed past her, her head twisting from side to side as she
searched for her child, not seeing him at first, Thea found herself swaying in the closest she had ever come to a faint. How had she ever managed to fetch the woman? Her legs couldn’t possibly have found such strength. How could such a gigantic catastrophe be happening, here before her eyes?
Everything had gone silent. Gudrun gathered up the limp body and clutched it to her breast, her eyes staring unfocused, straight ahead. Now and then she shook the boy, as if to force life into him. Her fingers toyed with the ligature round his neck, but made no serious attempt to remove it. It was as if she made no connection between it and the cause of the child’s death. Thea choked slightly, as she slowly realised what had been done to young Stevie, how terrifying it must have been for him to feel it digging into his tender skin.
The BlackBerry was in her pocket, as always. She tremblingly took it out and tried to remember what to do to summon the police. Gudrun should have been shrieking at her, galvanising her into action, instead of just sitting there in the rain rocking her boy. Two or three cars passed a few yards away, one every half-minute or so. How could they fail to know what was happening, how badly they were needed? Too much time was passing; something was supposed to happen. When it did, it was far from useful.
Tears began to course down Thea’s face of their own accord. Something had welled up like a great wave
from deep inside her and erupted out of her eyes. Her chest pumped the fluid out, as if it were her lifeblood. It was much too terrible to deal with. Nothing so bad as this had ever happened before, not in the whole history of the world. Gudrun’s face bore witness to that. Gudrun had turned to stone, as dead and useless as the child in her arms.
It was the spaniel, yapping impatiently from inside Thea’s car, that set things in motion at last.
Thea had been involved in sudden and violent deaths before, not least that of her own husband, Carl, over three years earlier. This was nothing like any of them. The police officers, when they arrived, evidently had the same reaction. A deliberately garotted child was way beyond the experience of almost anybody in the country. Children might accidentally hang themselves from carelessly placed ropes or lines, which was ghastly and terrible enough – but this had been done with malice. The weapon appeared to be a sort of plastic-coated string, which must have been held tightly in place for several minutes, before the attacker tied it in a knot at the side of the child’s head. It was bright green – the sort of innocent item everybody had neatly coiled in their box of oddments. It was not an obvious means of killing someone, being rather springy and disinclined to stay where one put it. These details emerged in short fragments from the low conversation that went on around Thea’s car throughout the remainder of the afternoon.
Thea and a policewoman led Gudrun into Hyacinth House, but she stayed only moments before running outside again to see what was happening to her boy. She was like a bulldozer, with wide powerful shoulders and short strong legs. Nobody felt up to tackling her physically, and in no other way did she pay the slightest attention to the people around her. There was no place for consolation or sweet tea or sedatives. Her distress was far beyond anything on offer, impossible to assuage or divert.
And yet Thea was already catching odd glances between the milling officers, which suggested ideas that were at first quite horrifying. They eyed Gudrun’s muscular frame, and muttered about Stevie being a known troublemaker, a real handful for a single mum. They cocked sceptical brows at her display of maternal grief, which had, over the course of an hour or so, mutated from silent horror to loud moans. Anger was not far away, Thea guessed – and then things would become far more difficult.
But the child himself remained the central focus. A doctor knelt gently over him, listening to his heart and palpating the violated neck. A photographer grimly captured the scene, swallowing hard as he bent close to the area of trauma. The little knot of curious villagers assembled at the gate was held back by a uniformed officer. Unable to see anything, thanks to Thea’s sheltering car, they drifted away quite soon.
And then Gladwin arrived.
Detective Superintendent Sonia Gladwin was well known to Thea, and very much liked. She had transferred from Cumbria, where the climate and people had shaped her into a person of adaptability and great good sense. She was approaching forty, a thin energetic mother of twin sons and generally content with her life. She had never seen a garotted child before, either.
‘My God, Thea! What’s going on here?’
She ought not to have addressed the house-sitter before the police officers at the scene, but nobody appeared to take exception. Gladwin’s gender was a central part of her approach to the job, something she made no attempt to deny or conceal. She behaved as a woman generally behaved: going soft over baby animals, looking for the emotional angle in a case, making outrageous intuitive leaps and cajoling colleagues instead of yelling at them. As far as Thea could tell, it worked extremely well.
‘I found him. He lives just over there, down that track. I’d already met his mother, and seen him around, since I got here yesterday.’
‘And somebody killed him?’ Like the photographer, she swallowed hard before moving to view the body. Thea knew better than to follow, even if she had wanted to. It was a crime scene, potentially rich with invisible clues, and everyone was required to keep a good distance away, the police hoping the earlier invasions of both Thea and Gudrun would
not have already obliterated anything of significance. It was raining harder now, and the chance of finding helpfully relevant threads and hairs and flakes of skin had to be close to zero. Nonetheless, rules were rules and the area was now forbidden territory. It had to be meticulously examined for signs of a violent struggle.
‘Unless he did it to himself,’ said a uniformed male officer. ‘The doc thinks that’s unlikely.’
Gladwin’s expression silenced him very effectively.
‘You’re right in the middle of this one, then,’ she said to Thea. ‘Again.’
‘Don’t,’ begged Thea. ‘I tempted fate by thinking things were really going to be rather dull here. Except when the homeowner went missing, of course,’ she added carelessly.
‘It’s not important. She was soon found again. And from what I’ve seen and heard of Stevie, he was … well …’ She tailed off, unable to voice anything condemnatory of the pathetic little figure, who had certainly never done anything to deserve such a dreadful end. He should have lived, and grown up to become a responsible citizen, using his talents to good effect. She put a hand to her own throat, as she had seen a number of the assembled officers do unconsciously. ‘Poor little boy,’ she murmured. ‘How could anybody be so cruel?’
‘I have to talk to the doctor and the others. I’ll see you in the house in a little while. We’ll have to deal
with the mother first. She’s looking rather explosive.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Thea, thinking it would be good to sit down and let go of some of the emotions she was fighting to control. She felt choked and clogged with misery. ‘Can I let the dog out now?’
Gladwin frowned, until Thea indicated the frantic animal still shut inside the car, which had been shunted three or four yards away, to leave space for the numerous police officials. ‘I thought she’d better stay there for the time being, but she’ll go mad if I don’t rescue her soon.’
For answer, Gladwin herself went and opened the passenger door of the car. The spaniel flew out, ears flapping, and jumped up at Thea’s legs in an ecstasy of relief. Thea pushed her down, and took hold of her collar. ‘Come on, you. I’ll have to shut you in the house now. You’ll only be a nuisance out here.’
She took herself to a corner of the living room, amongst the clutter of shelved units and crowded cabinets, and closed her eyes. The feeling of overwhelming cruelty surged all around, with a sense of something demonic and loathsome lurking close by. She had already been foolish enough to entertain fantasies about witches and vampires, letting the supernatural add spice to the blandness of the day. Now the real world had turned far more threatening and malevolent than any demon or bloodsucker ever could. She almost found herself hoping that Gudrun had indeed murdered her own son. That would at
least contain the dreadful wrongness, and make some slight sense of what had happened. Mothers lost their wits in the strain and pressure of dealing with an impossible child; it was terrible and tragic, but not evil. People could crack, their weakness emerging as a fit of appalling violence, and they finished up by harming themselves more terribly than anybody else. Except for the slaughtered child, of course, who had lost absolutely everything.
But if Gudrun
done it, then was it possible that Thea herself had added the final straw to her breaking back? Could it be that her report of his stone-throwing was just one more unbearable event in a tightening chain of awful acts that forced her to accept that her son was out of control? Thea recalled her conversations with the Williams mother and daughter, and with Clara Beauchamp, only hours ago. All three confirmed Thea’s own impressions of a child running out of control, with a nasty malicious streak that alarmed them. Had it alarmed them enough to tip them over into killing him? Was that even imaginable? She thought of the tall composed Janice, with her iron-jawed daughter. Could they have flipped, driven to homicide by the attacks on their garden?
It was tempting to believe anything rather than that it had been Gudrun who killed the boy. How could that suspicion possibly square with the annihilation she had witnessed in the woman, as she slowly understood what had happened? Nobody could act
as well as that. Of
she hadn’t done it; the idea was insane.
But somebody had, and who could possibly have such passionate antipathy to the boy – whatever awful things he might have done – other than his mother who lived with him every day and knew, perhaps, what he was capable of?
Gladwin walked into the house without fanfare at seven and stayed for half an hour. Thea made coffee and found some cheese and biscuits, which they ate together like old friends.
‘Are you okay?’ Gladwin asked.
‘Very much not. That poor little boy. I can’t stop thinking about him. His white face, and thin little legs.’
‘Didn’t you hear anything? It was right outside this house. Why didn’t you see what was happening?’
Thea blinked at her. ‘I never thought of that. I was in the kitchen, I think, and it looks over the back. Hepzie was on the chair in here. At least – I’m assuming it happened in the middle of the day sometime.’
‘He was still warm. We’re guessing something like three in the afternoon, or a bit earlier.’
Thea winced at the stark implications. She had been speaking to Jocelyn, or washing a plate, or simply being idle and inattentive while a dreadful act was being committed only yards away. She swallowed, and tried to speak lucidly. ‘I don’t know – but I was
probably in the kitchen. I phoned my sister. I walked around the village this morning, and got back here around half past one.’
‘You haven’t used the car today?’
‘So you might not have seen him if he’d been there when you got back from the village?’
‘No. I just came in through the gate. Hepzie might have noticed, though, if he’d been behind the car.’
‘I’m afraid Hepzie doesn’t make a very good witness.’
‘No.’ She didn’t laugh or even smile. It was like being under a rough brown blanket that smothered all normal tendencies to lightness or humour.
‘You know …’ Gladwin said slowly, looking at the floor, ‘there have been moments when I could have strangled my own boys. I can just about imagine having a piece of string in my hands for something else, and whipping it round the little wretch’s neck in a crazy moment, just to shut him up for a minute or show him a lesson. Can’t you?’