Authors: Rebecca Tope
Thea shrugged and pointed to the clock on the wall.
‘You’re going to be seriously late,’ she warned him.
‘Yeah,’ he said without moving. ‘First time in five years. I’ve been at their beck and call all weekend, I might tell you. I guess they’ll cut me some slack, after that.’ He put on a bad American accent, which failed to elicit a smile from Thea, although she did feel a slight thawing towards him. Somehow her defences were collapsing in the face of his banter. She had encountered men like him before, wolves in the guise of placid llamas, amusingly self-deprecating, hiding their real motives. Or perhaps this one was the real article, trained from birth to gain popularity by making people smile, and acquiring the habit as a second skin, with no sinister undertones. Just an element of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
‘What work do you do?’ she asked him.
‘It would take a while to explain, but it involves the welfare of children in hospital. All terribly insecure, the way things are. One of those nice idealistic jobs dreamt up by New Labour when there was plenty of money sloshing about. Now they’re starting to think maybe people’s own families could do it for free. Trouble is, they won’t, half the time.’
He smiled and shrugged helplessly, and she envisaged him dressed as a Pierrot, entertaining sick children and persuading them to eat their hospital food.
She groped in vain for the central significance of his visit. Nothing seemed to justify such a time-consuming
effort, risking her non-cooperation by arriving at such an unearthly hour. ‘Do you want to search the house for your mother’s body?’ she asked, forcing a steely note into her voice. ‘Your sister’s going to want to know you did a thorough job.’
‘Oh, she doesn’t know I’ve come. She’d think I was mad. Well, she
thinks that. Let’s just say she wouldn’t be happy about it. But I
act independently every now and then, and I have been worried about Mum for a bit now.’
‘I can see you’re not a murderer,’ he said simply. ‘Besides, nobody would really murder my mum. She’s too … I don’t know. Bland, maybe. People don’t notice her. It was all a stupid panic, when we saw the house on the telly.’
She wanted to respond with assurances that this was quite understandable, but found herself unable to do so. After he had gone, she felt irritated and bewildered by this strange visitation from a man who had felt untrustworthy. When he’d persuaded himself that nobody had hurt his mother, he had drifted into a relaxed flippancy that seemed callous to Thea.
Mark’s visit was no more than a dreamlike interlude, made more unreal by the fact that she was still in her dressing gown. There had been some sort of near-physical barrier to making any reference to the child, Stevie, well beyond a dutiful obedience to Gladwin’s injunction. The boy had been pushing at
the edge of her mind throughout the conversation with Mark Parker, and yet the tone and content of their exchanges prevented her from properly thinking about him.
Yvonne Parker had been given even scantier attention over the past twenty-four hours or so. She had made that reassuring phone call the previous morning and thereby removed herself from Thea’s list of worries. The horror and tragedy of the child’s murder had completely blotted her out. And there was no good reason to readmit her now. She could have had no connection with Stevie’s death, even if she knew him as a persistent nuisance – which was far from certain. Yvonne was a schoolteacher; she probably knew how to deal with annoying children. It was even possible that young Stevie was at her school, she thought, before remembering that the woman taught French and was therefore obviously at a secondary school, which Stevie had not yet reached.
The cats were in the kitchen when she went back downstairs having finally got dressed, impatient for their morning biscuits. Although not entirely reconciled to the interloper, they had apparently decided to make the best of the disappearance of their rightful owner. Eyeing the closed door, beyond which was the untrustworthy spaniel, they delicately crunched the food in unison. ‘You really are very pretty things,’ Thea told them. ‘And absolutely no trouble, thank goodness.’ It was true what Mark had said, she
admitted to herself. Anybody could have dropped in twice a day and ensured that the cats got their meals. Yvonne’s motive for employing a house-sitter had to lie beyond the care of these easy creatures.
She felt caught in a strangely paradoxical state: having too much to think about and too little to actually
. There were literally no tasks awaiting her until late afternoon, when again she had to feed the cats. It was all too likely that she was going to end up dusting the sprawling collection of objects and perhaps even mentally cataloguing them according to date, or place of origin, or aesthetic appeal. And she would do the same with the buildings of Snowshill: listing the many gorgeous houses in order of merit or interest.
And all the time she would be thinking about young Stevie and his mother, and Gladwin’s suspicions, and the terrible things people were capable of doing to each other.
At eight-thirty, twenty minutes after Mark departed, the police team reappeared wearing white suits and face masks and crawling assiduously over the grass where Stevie had been lying. This might go on for days, Thea realised, with mixed feelings. They cast a pall of tragedy over the whole village, but at least they gave Thea something to watch – and they might even accept refreshments from her if she offered. She had to keep Hepzie firmly indoors, or only let out at the back on a lead. She wondered frustratedly what had become of Gudrun, and how she was coping with the police questions. Had she maintained a stunned and traumatised silence, or had she understood her doubtful position and ranted and raved at her accusers? Had anyone spoken up for her, volunteering to sit with her in her misery? What did police guidelines ordain
in a situation like this? As far as Thea could see, there was no hard evidence that Gudrun had murdered her own child, which surely meant she could not be kept in custody. And what did the locals make of it? What would the ghost of Charles Paget Wade think of any suggestion that the most taboo crime of them all might have been committed on his doorstep?
Snowshill was a dauntingly small place. The residents would inevitably all know each other and pass on their opinions of what precisely happened. It had been plain from her meeting with Janice and Ruby, and then with Clara Beauchamp, that Stevie was a universal menace. Gladwin would have to interrogate everyone in the village, accumulating a list of the boy’s misdemeanours. There might even be a guilty satisfaction rippling just below the surface, beneath the genuine horror, at the knowledge that at least he wasn’t going to terrorise their animals or massacre their flowers ever again. And perhaps he did worse than that; perhaps he bullied their small children and damaged their cars as well. But this was a respectable English village, where emotions seldom went beyond an occasional raised voice across a garden fence or an impatiently hooted car horn. It was unimaginable that a child could be slaughtered simply because he was a nuisance.
Thea’s natural curiosity gradually began to assert itself as the morning progressed, sparked by the comments Clara had made and fuelled by further
remarks from Blake-next-door. It was annoying that he should take himself off just when she would have liked somebody to talk to. She could hardly expect Gladwin to devote much time to filling her in on what had been discovered, even if Thea was the principal witness to the aftermath of the murder. She had found dead bodies before and had become important to the police investigations as a result. This time she felt a dread she hadn’t previously known; an emotion worse than the fear that had gripped her in Hampnett. She felt a dark malicious spirit lurking close by, embodied fancifully in the hornet that had attacked her when she least expected it and then disappeared from sight. She had thought this spirit resided in the boy Stevie, but with his death it became obvious that it lay elsewhere, and Stevie was just another victim.
Now here she was, cooped up in a house she should have liked for its beautiful proportions and heavy protective walls, but actually found oppressive and even hostile. The atmosphere of malice extended through those thick walls and filled the house itself. A spikiness, perhaps, a suspicion that many of Yvonne’s collectables could be brought into use as weapons if the occasion demanded it. There were heavy stone objects, for a start, and a great deal of glass that could quickly be rendered lethal. Candleholders with sharp metal prongs could stab you, and one or two of the old electric lamps probably had such dodgy wiring they could electrocute you. It felt like the home of someone
planning deviously sly means of harming someone, once seen through this kind of lens.
Thea scolded herself sternly. The woman who owned this house was a timid creature who had quailed at the simple task of finding a house in north London, where maps and signs abounded. She was dependent on her neighbour for almost everything. And yet … she held down a job teaching teenagers a foreign language, which couldn’t be entirely easy. It would be unwise to take her wholly at face value, and it would be very interesting to unravel the complicated history of her marriage to the bewildering Victor. Victor who lived in a small scruffy flat, but had made a lot of money; who had left the marital home for reasons that remained obscure, and had apparently finally been confronted by a wife who had overcome her own reluctance because of the needs of her daughter. On the phone he had sounded impatient, even contemptuous, towards Yvonne. His children appeared to have few illusions about him. The more she thought about him, the more Thea wished she could meet him and draw her own conclusions about his character.
And then, the blessed Gladwin came back at ten, and saved Thea from further plunges into fantastic imaginings.
‘He wasn’t killed out there,’ she said, with minimal preamble. ‘The body was moved.’
It was a bigger relief than Thea could have anticipated. There had been nothing she could have
done to prevent it, then, if only she’d been listening hard or watching more closely. ‘How long before? I mean—’
‘About an hour, apparently. Hard to say for sure, but the blood in his veins had pooled significantly on his left side, and you said you found him lying on his face. I’m assuming you didn’t move him.’
‘I’m afraid I did. I turned him over. He was lying on his face when I first found him. And then his mother picked him right up and cradled him.’
‘Which is why your testimony is going to be absolutely crucial.’
‘It’s not as bad as it sounds. There’s sure to be a bit of forensic evidence to support you – grass residue on his front, for example. They’d mowed that verge only a couple of days ago and left the trimmings just lying. Very helpful, that.’
‘So now we ask ourselves why he was dumped just there, behind your car. Even someone walking past wouldn’t have seen him. The chances that it would be you, and only you, were very high.’
‘You’re saying somebody deliberately wanted to horrify me, as some sort of attack on me? But I don’t
‘You met Gudrun and complained to her about her boy.’
‘Yes.’ Thea’s eyes widened in disbelief. ‘But you’re
not suggesting she killed him, threw him at my feet, as it were, to say “There! See what you’ve made me do!” That would be completely insane.’
‘Yes – and yet there’s a ghastly logic to it, don’t you think?’
‘There might be if he was a pet rabbit – although even then it’s a horrible thought. Nobody would do that to their own child. They just wouldn’t. I don’t believe it.’ She forced herself to relive the moments when she went to fetch Gudrun, in an instinctive desire to reunite mother and child. ‘No, she didn’t do it. She was much too appalled. Worse than that –
How is she now?’ she remembered to ask.
‘I haven’t seen her. She’s got a Family Liaison girl with her. According to her, Gudrun’s more or less catatonic.’
‘Coffee?’ Thea invited. Gladwin accepted, and as she boiled the kettle, Thea said idly, ‘This is the second time this morning I’ve made coffee for somebody, and it’s not even ten-thirty yet.’
‘Mark Parker turned up ridiculously early. He’d seen all the commotion on the news and came to check it out for himself. This is his mother’s house,’ she added belatedly.
‘Where does he live?’
‘Somewhere on the Welsh border. I can’t remember exactly.’
‘How very strange. Were you still in bed?’
‘Yes, I was fast asleep. It was only half past seven.’
‘So tell me about the family. Are they connected to Gudrun and her kid somehow?’
‘Not that I know of, apart from living close by. There’s Yvonne, the mother, who’s gone to London to see her husband for the first time in ages. They’ve got two adopted children, aged around thirty, brother and sister, Belinda and Mark. Yvonne intends to insist that her husband contributes towards the cost of Belinda’s wedding. They broke up five years ago, or thereabouts. He lives in Crouch End, in a flat that Yvonne regards as scruffy, but has plenty of money and is expecting to make more any day now. Then he’ll probably buy a new house.’ She frowned. ‘Or did I just make that bit up? And she couldn’t face it on Saturday, so she stayed at a B&B or something, and went there first thing Sunday morning.’
Gladwin’s mouth was open, and she was absently rubbing her neck. ‘It’s a miracle,’ she gasped.
‘That you’ve gleaned all that in two days, when you tell me you haven’t seen anybody since you got here. Do you have some sort of hotline to the Recording Angel?’
‘I didn’t say I haven’t seen anybody. I talked to Blake-next-door, and Janice and Ruby, plus Clara
Beauchamp – and now Mark. And Vonny told me a few things, before she left.’
‘That’s what they all call her.’
Gladwin took the coffee and wandered out into the hall, and then into the living room. Thea followed her, braced for the reaction. ‘Blimey! What a lot of stuff!’ She started to examine some of the displays. ‘Is there a theme to it that I’m missing?’ she asked, after a few minutes.
‘Not that I can see. She says it’s the Snowshill Syndrome, and she got it from the Paget chap and the Manor. You know about Snowshill Manor?’
Thea summed up the eccentricities of the collection in a few words, finishing with the confession that she had not yet seen it for herself, merely read about it on various websites. ‘I suppose I’ll have to go and have a look one day soon,’ she said.
‘And it’s near Snowshill?’
Snowshill, a quarter of a mile from here. But you have to walk or drive so far to get into it that it feels as if it’s somewhere else. Like the opposite of a mirage,’ she added obscurely. ‘I mean it feels far but is actually close. It’s all National Trust now.’
Gladwin gave a puzzled nod. ‘I never heard of it before.’
‘That’s forgivable,’ smiled Thea. ‘I hadn’t either until a few weeks ago. This place isn’t really in the
middle of things. There are barely even any signs to it until you get a mile or two away. I’m almost scared to go out anywhere in case I can’t find my way back again.’
Simultaneously they both reined back from the chit-chat and recalled themselves to the urgent matter confronting them. The detective noted down the names of the residents Thea had spoken to, with their comments about Stevie. ‘I’m being outrageously unprofessional again,’ she reproached herself. ‘The truth is, I’m having trouble facing up to this. It’s far too close to home.’
‘I keep thinking of the media comments,’ shivered Thea. ‘I guess it won’t be long before they start making insinuations.’
‘They’re not allowed to. It would make a fair trial impossible.’
‘I hadn’t noticed that stopping them, especially recently.’
‘True. It makes everything a lot more difficult.’ Gladwin spoke absently, her thin face turned to the window overlooking the field behind the house.
‘Does it, though? At least it means you’ll have to find absolutely certain evidence before bringing a prosecution. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Think of those cases where innocent women have been charged with smothering their babies, because the police relied too much on half-baked experts. If Gudrun didn’t do it, and ends up in court, that would be ten times worse
for her – like torture. Barbaric and cruel.’
‘“If”,’ said Gladwin gloomily. ‘It’s a big “if”.’
‘Come on!’ Thea found a seam of energetic resistance to this attitude. ‘You can’t possibly have any real proof yet. And if I’m called as a witness—’
‘Oh, you will be,’ said the detective.
‘Well, then, I’ll be a witness for the defence. I saw absolutely nothing in her behaviour to suggest guilt. Not a thing.’
‘Good. That’s good. Thank you.’
‘I was basically testing you, I’m afraid. Just checking for weak spots, if you like. In this sort of case, you really do have to think the unthinkable, but I’m with you. I don’t believe she did it, either.’
‘But you have to keep an open mind.’
‘I do. And what I believe really has very little to do with it.’