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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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‘I’ve got a girl,’ said Thea. ‘It’s probably different.’ She thought about Jocelyn’s children, and especially her favourite nephew, Noel. He was sweetly affectionate, a smiling cooperative little chap who endured the teasing from his four older siblings as if it was his due. Even through serious ructions between his parents, he remained his same pliable, contented little self. ‘So, no, I can’t think how that might happen. Besides –
what about the string? If she was chasing after him for some reason, I suppose she could have just had it in her hand. And why would he run up here?’ As she spoke, the scene offered itself to her imagination, all too vividly. Stevie having infuriated his mother, dodging her slaps perhaps, defying her, saying something intolerably insolent. Then running up the track, into the road, past Blake’s house and then finally being caught outside Hyacinth House. What more natural, then, than to cower behind Thea’s car, in the hope of evading the irate woman? By the time she found him, her temper would be far beyond control, the string a handy means of restraining him.

‘She can’t possibly have meant to kill him,’ she said, feeling again a phantom ligature below her own ear, pushing at the delicate vulnerable area of neck where the carotid artery pulsed. ‘She just pulled it too tight. If it was her, I mean. But it
wasn’t
, Sonia. I just know it wasn’t.’

‘Right,’ nodded Gladwin, with professional neutrality. ‘So, when you found him, you ran down to her cottage, or whatever it is, to tell her? Did you know he was dead then?’

‘Yes, to both questions. If there’d been any doubt, I’m sure I would have summoned help.’

‘You don’t sound sure.’

‘How can I know exactly what I’d do? I wasn’t thinking in any normal way. I just reacted on instinct, and that sent me running for his mother.’

‘How did you know where she lived?’

‘I saw them yesterday. I mean, I followed the boy to his house and spoke to his mother.’

Gladwin went very still and closed her eyes. ‘And …?’ she prompted.

‘He’d been misbehaving,’ Thea evaded.

‘You complained about him?’ the detective guessed.

‘Clever you. He was throwing stones at the cows.’

‘Thea,
please
don’t tell me that she said she’d kill him. That didn’t happen, did it?’

Thea’s clenched silence answered the question.

‘Oh, God,’ moaned the detective. ‘I can hear the prosecution already.’

‘She didn’t mean it. We’ve all said it a hundred times. The whole
village
must want to kill him. He was a brat. Everybody says so. Except Blake. He seems to think it’s just normal boyish high spirits.’

‘I assume you’ll tell me who “everybody” is, as well as this Blake person. First let’s finish the story. What was she doing when you got to her house?’

‘I don’t know. She sounded as if she might have been having a nap, funnily enough. Sort of bleary.’

‘That doesn’t work, does it?’ Gladwin’s voice remained low and strained. Anybody overhearing the conversation would have utterly failed to identify her as a senior police detective. ‘Not if she’d gone berserk and killed him by mistake. It fits better with a cold deliberate murder.’

‘Nobody coldly and deliberately kills their own child.’

‘Men do, sometimes. They think it’s the best thing for all concerned.’

‘Really? Perhaps Gudrun thought that. Perhaps she thought he was going to turn into a psychopathic monster, and was better off dead.’ She considered miserably. ‘Yes, that would make quite a lot of sense.’ Then she shook herself. ‘But it wasn’t her,’ she repeated. ‘You have to believe me.’

‘We’re running much too far ahead,’ Gladwin checked herself. ‘Supposition, that’s all this is. Not even that, before we get the PM results. We’re being entirely too female about it.’

It was the closest Thea came to a smile, but it never reached her lips. Amongst the smothering blanket of pain and horror there was a warm thread of relief that it was Gladwin in charge, and not a well-intentioned but outraged man. Men automatically became disproportionately judgemental when confronted with a delinquent woman. A woman who killed her own child was monstrous, beyond all normal bounds. This attitude made sense from a variety of cultural and biological viewpoints, but it often obscured the truth of what had happened. It was going to be easier to defend Gudrun to Gladwin – and defending Gudrun was what all her instincts were demanding of her.

‘I’m so glad it’s you,’ she said.

‘Glad to be Gladwin,’ quipped the detective. She even managed a smile. ‘Look – we’re keeping the media quiet until tomorrow. They’ve got wind of it,
of course, and there might be some camera crews on your doorstep, but nobody’s to know who was killed, okay? For the time being, we need to sort ourselves out and decide how much to say. Abigail’s working on it now.’

‘Abigail?’

‘Media liaison. Delicate work, I can tell you. She does a good job. Everybody loves her, including the reptiles from the tabloids. She has them right where she wants them. It’s a miracle.’

‘So I can’t tell anybody?’

‘Not until tomorrow. Midday, let’s say. It’ll be out by then, anyway, but we’ll have a go at controlling it.’

‘You think there’ll be a lynch mob out for Gudrun?’

Gladwin rolled her eyes. ‘It’s all too horribly possible,’ she confirmed.

Thea went cold, thinking of her own role in the tragic business. ‘I won’t say anything,’ she promised.

The rain brought an early twilight, the sky almost dark by nine o’clock. Stevie’s body had finally been removed, Thea’s car having been carefully reversed into the road to make way for the undertaker’s vehicle. Gudrun was taken away somewhere – where
did
someone go when the whole purpose of their existence had suddenly collapsed? Perhaps she had a large extended family to take her in. On the whole, Thea thought this unlikely.

There were still people coming and going outside, up to nine-thirty. The fact that a serious crime had been committed was impossible to conceal, and Thea was alarmed to find a journalist and cameraman on her doorstep when she went to answer the bell. ‘I have no intention of speaking to you,’ she said, and slammed the door in their faces. This was a disastrous turn of events, something she ought to have anticipated. Was
she to be besieged for days in this impossible house, imprisoned with the knick-knacks for the next two weeks? Could she make an escape from the back, running through the field and up into the woods?

When the phone rang, she decided to ignore it. It would only be the press, trying another approach. But it rang repeatedly, and she faced a choice of unplugging it or answering it. The former was very much her preference – after all, the important people all knew her mobile number – but it felt too much like a violation of her responsibilities to Yvonne Parker. ‘Daft,’ she muttered to herself. But she could not forget that she was in another woman’s house, paid to step into her shoes for a fortnight and ensure that all was as well as possible on her return. The fact that Hyacinth House would be on the TV news, in the papers, on innumerable websites, in all its recognisable glory, was beyond Thea’s control. She could, however, maintain some vestige of dutiful behaviour, and answer Yvonne’s telephone.

‘Mum?  What’s going on?’

Was it Jessica? Thea wondered in puzzlement. It didn’t
sound
like her. ‘Um …?’ she said.

‘Who’s that? Have I got the right number?’

‘This is Hyacinth House,’ said Thea, trying to assemble her faculties.

‘But you’re not my mother. Who
are
you?’

‘The house-sitter. Are you Yvonne’s daughter?’ She searched her memory. ‘Belinda, is it?’

‘Why has she got a house-sitter? She never goes anywhere.’

‘She’s gone to see your father. In London.’ Too late, she wondered whether it was diplomatic to convey this news. Had Yvonne not told the girl for a reason? Were the wedding arrangements some sort of secret surprise?

‘Oh. But the house has just been on the news – something’s happened. They just said “an incident”, but it’s obviously something terrible.’

‘Yes, but I’m not allowed to talk about it. You needn’t worry. Your mother’s perfectly all right.’

‘How do you know she is? You don’t know what a brute my father can be.’

‘Well …’ There was really nothing to say to that, of course. The complications of the Parker family felt entirely irrelevant on that particular evening.

‘When is she due back?’

‘In a fortnight. She’s going to France to see her sister as well.’

‘To see Auntie Sim? You’re joking! She’d never do that. She’s scared stiff of flying, and the tunnel’s almost as bad.’

Again Thea failed to respond. She was far too drained to care about Yvonne Parker’s phobias. Normally she might have made friendly efforts to elicit more detail. Had Belinda really said ‘Auntie Sim’, for instance? It was too much effort to question it. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I only know what she told me.’

‘Obviously. Look – I’m coming over tomorrow, to see for myself what’s been going on. My mother would never just swan off like that. She never wants to see my father again. My God – just wait till I tell Mark about this. He isn’t going to believe it for a second.’

‘But – aren’t you in Wales? Isn’t that a long drive?’

‘I’m just over the border. It’ll take me an hour, A44 all the way. I need to see for myself,’ she repeated in a distracted tone. ‘Oh, but no, I can’t. We’ve got to sort the lambs tomorrow. You’re quite sure Mum’s okay, are you?’

‘I am sure. At least, nothing that’s happening here is to do with her. It’s something else entirely. They’ll release details tomorrow, so you’ll have to wait till then.’ She knew she ought to make an effort to pacify Belinda. After all, she wouldn’t like it if she saw her mother’s house on the news, with police tape all over the place and a very sinister vagueness about exactly what had happened. But she felt too drained to do a satisfactory job. ‘I’m sorry,’ she attempted. ‘It must have been an awful shock. Phone me again tomorrow, if you like. I’ll be able to talk more freely then.’

‘I’ll phone my father,’ came the cool reply. ‘Thank you.’

 

She went to bed in a miasma of gloom, having given the dog barely a minute to relieve herself outside the back door. The SOCOs or whatever they were had
gone home for the night, as had the press people. It was blessedly silent, but where the previous night she had listened for vicious hornets in the roof, this time she had far more lethal human beings to worry about – somebody out there was capable of murdering a child, and therefore surely quite apt to do something every bit as terrible again.

She was just drifting into a shallow sleep when the face of her daughter swam before her mind’s eye. She hadn’t even checked to see whether a new message had arrived. Had Jess gone to work as advised? Had she seen Paul? Was she feeling better or worse? The worries kept her awake for another hour, only to be followed by thoughts of Drew Slocombe, who wanted her to go and check his property in Broad Campden. In a nightmarish merry-go-round, Yvonne Parker replaced Drew, and somehow Jocelyn returned to bother her. Why, she asked herself, had she dreamed about her younger sister the night before? She had sounded fine on the phone, setting off on a family adventure that made Thea feel quite envious.

And how was the wretched Gudrun facing the first night without her little boy?

And were the hornets dormant now that the sun had disappeared?

 

The doorbell woke her from a profound slumber that had lasted less than two hours. Her tossing and turning through most of the night had so annoyed her
dog that it had jumped off the bed and made a nest in a corner of the room on a woven wool rug. Her yaps were more instantly disturbing than the rather fainter bell, ringing down in the hall.

‘Who’s that?’ Thea groaned. ‘What time is it?’

Her watch informed her that it was half past seven. With a sense of helplessness, she stumbled down the stairs in her pyjamas, wishing she had the strength of character to simply ignore whoever it was.

It was a young man, with prominent blue eyes and wavy brown hair, which appeared to have missed its morning brushing. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ he gushed with theatrical exaggeration, seeing her pyjamas. ‘I’m Mark Parker. I couldn’t wait any longer. I set out at first light. What in the world’s happened here? Linny says the house was on the news, but they wouldn’t give any details. She would have come herself, but she’s got to do something complicated with lambs.’

‘Mark Parker,’ she repeated, dozily distracted by the rhyming name. She recalled a Miriam Ingram she had met a while ago, not to mention her husband Graham. She should start a collection.

‘Vonny’s son,’ he elaborated. ‘She’s gone off somewhere without telling us, according to my sister. I thought I should come and make sure you haven’t murdered her.’

The tactlessness of this remark took Thea’s breath away. She threw a long look at the police tape across the grass beyond the front gate. He had the grace to
flush. ‘It looks to me as if there
has
been a murder,’ he defended himself.

‘Come in,’ she said. ‘I’ll get dressed.’ She remembered a comment from Yvonne to the effect that her son worried about legalities, at least where the shared garden was concerned. Did that extend to a need to assure himself that the house-sitter was fully law-abiding?

‘No, no. It’s all right. I just wanted to see if you were real. If you were still here. I suppose you’ve got to watch out for those blasted cats, as if anybody couldn’t just drop in and see to them. I don’t mean this rudely, but I imagine you don’t come cheap and she’s in no position to throw money around like that. But my mother hasn’t been very rational for a while now.’

Thea shook her head impatiently. Not just legalities, but finances, it seemed, came under this man’s area of concern. Yvonne Parker felt altogether irrelevant to her on this new morning that already threatened to be every bit as horrible as the previous afternoon had been. Stevie was still dead, and once the police authorised the media to release some facts, there would be far too much attention on Snowshill and Hyacinth House.

But Mark Parker was waiting for a response, his eyebrows raised. ‘I think she was worried about her things,’ she said weakly.

‘Oh!’ He swiped splayed fingers through his hair. ‘The
things
. Of course. Look – why don’t you go out for a little
walk and I’ll quickly set fire to the whole damned place?’

His jokes were not improving tastewise, she noted. She didn’t even smile. ‘Wouldn’t that be illegal?’ she said tartly.

‘Sorry,’ he said again. ‘I can’t help it.’

‘You’ve got Tourette’s syndrome?’

‘What? No, of course not. I’m just – oh, I don’t know. Trying to make you like me, I suppose.’

Her unamused gaze conveyed very clearly that he was approaching this goal in quite the wrong way.

‘So they let you stay here – the police, I mean? Isn’t that a bit weird? I mean …’ He turned to look again at the police tape and Thea’s awkwardly positioned car. His own vehicle was further up the road, a splash of red just visible over the hedge. ‘Who was it that got killed? Was it somebody I knew?’

‘I’m not allowed to tell you.’

‘Why the hell not? That’s insane.’

‘I’m just doing what they asked. It helps with their initial investigations, I suppose. But it’ll leak out any time now.’ She changed the subject. ‘You lived here, did you, as a child?’

He nodded. ‘Here until I was twenty-five, actually. They more or less had to throw me out.’

‘How long ago was that?’ He didn’t look much past twenty-five.

‘Five years. Then Dad buggered off, and I suggested coming back to keep Mum company, but she wouldn’t let me.’

‘Right,’ said Thea vaguely.

‘What if the killer comes back? Aren’t you scared?’

She shrugged. Something of his manner must be contagious, she thought. ‘Not unless you’re him,’ she said.

‘Me?’ He threw up his hands. ‘Not likely. I’m the ultimate wimp, anybody can tell you. Our Linny’s always worn the trousers in the Parker family.’

‘She phoned me.’

‘Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here.’

‘Yes. Sorry. I’m not properly awake yet.’

They were standing awkwardly on the threshold, the spaniel restlessly circling them, hoping for the breakfast routine to start, whereby she received a biscuit and a few minutes out of doors. Mark continued speaking, his tone insistent, eager to gain her full attention. ‘You told Linny that Mum had gone to see our disgraced father, and presumably discovered his sordid lifestyle.’

Thea nodded. ‘She seemed a bit surprised.’

‘It’s not the way it looks, actually. He’s between houses, so to speak, but he’s pretty well heeled these days. He’s done some kind of deal with an Indian outfit, very much to his advantage. I have no idea of the details, but it sounds fairly amazing. It’s handy for him, moving in with the new girlfriend, while he decides what comes next.’

It felt entirely irrelevant to Thea’s immediate concerns, and she barely registered what he had said.
‘So?’ she said. ‘None of that explains why you’ve come here at crack of dawn, and then won’t even step inside the house. Your mother’s arrangements are her own business, aren’t they? Does she have to tell you everything she’s doing?’

His expression turned sulky. ‘I told you why I’m here.’

‘You wanted to make sure I hadn’t killed your mother?’

‘Is that what I said? How awful of me. Take no notice.’

‘I’m not. But if you won’t come in, then I’m closing the door and getting myself some breakfast.’

He pushed a hand through his hair again and heaved a sigh. ‘Okay, I’ll come in for a minute, then. I don’t suppose you’re making coffee, are you? That might settle me down. I get a bit crazy these light mornings. It’s all wrong, don’t you think? The sun should never come up before eight. It’s disorienting.’

‘I like them,’ she said. ‘It makes me sad that the days are already getting shorter.’

‘There you go, then,’ he said, meaninglessly. ‘I’m a night owl. A vampire. A creature of the shadows. Shows how bothered I was, coming here so early. The thing is, I have to be at work by nine, seventy miles away. I expect I’ll be late.’

‘You will if you stop for coffee.’

‘I have to have the coffee,’ he said seriously. ‘Taking the wider view, it is definitely necessary. I can’t drive without it.’

She gave him a mug of strong instant, adding plenty of milk to cool it down. ‘I like your dog,’ he said. Until then, she hadn’t thought he had even noticed there
was
a dog. ‘I always wanted a dog.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘Kington. It’s a remote little Herefordshire town, almost in Wales. Linny’s a couple of miles over the border. We like to think it means we can exist separately, but of course that’s ridiculous.’

‘You’re not twins, are you?’

He snorted. ‘Not even biological siblings, let alone twins. We were adopted, first me, then her. There’s less than a year between us. We always said we’re even closer than most twins. It’s all rather odd, when you stop to think about it.’

‘You don’t seem the slightest bit bothered by what’s happened,’ she reproached him impatiently. All she could think about was the pathetic child’s limp body. Mark Parker could have told her he was a surviving conjoined twin or a foundling left under a moorland gorse bush and she would scarcely have listened to him.

‘Because you won’t tell me anything about it,’ he flashed back. ‘Do you want me to torture the details out of you? I’m sorry, but I happen to be more interested in my parents and whatever unholy mess they’re making of all our lives. I blame Belinda, actually. What does she want to go and get married for, anyway?’

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