Authors: Ann Cleeves
For Brenda with thanksContents
Chapter Forty-SevenChapter One
Lizzie Redhead listened. In the prison it was never quiet. Not even now in the middle of the night. The other women in her room stirred, snuffling like animals in their sleep. No cells here. Dormitories that reminded her of school. No privacy. No darkness, either. A gleam from the corridor outside shone through the crack under the door, and though this was a low-security establishment there were spotlights at the walls and the gate, and the curtains were thin. Footsteps in the corridor outside. A screw checking that lass on suicide-watch. Two in the morning.
Lizzie worked in the prison farm, so she had access to fresh air and enough exercise to keep her fit, but that didn’t mean she slept well. She’d never needed much sleep. She’d always believed she didn’t belong to her parents; had decided when she was quite small that she was a foundling child, secretly adopted. What did they have in common after all? She had too much energy and a very low boredom threshold. Annie and Sam were soft and gentle, big on squidgy hugs and soppy kisses. Lizzie saw herself as hard and metallic. As an adult she’d chosen men like her. Flinty. Flint on flint made fire. Jason Crow had set her alight.
In a week she’d be released, and she was making plans. She’d become healthy in prison. She’d realized there were better ways to get her kicks than booze and drugs. Jason had taught her that too, though she hadn’t believed him at the time. She knew, from all he’d told her, that she was lucky to have ended up in an open institution.
In prison her entertainment was simple. She visited the library and joined the writers’ group. She had stories to tell and she needed to find the right words. In the library she’d found a book published by theNational Geographicand kept renewing the loan until she believed the book was hers. She lay on her bed and looked at pictures of places she wanted to see for herself, felt dizzy at the idea of travelling, had in her nostrils the smell of the rain forest, the salt of distant seas. Huge places, big enough to contain her ambition. Her parents had spent all their life within ten miles of the valley where her father had been born. Lizzie needed tough places to battle with, rocks sharp enough to cut her flesh.
She’d been a cutter when she was a teenager, slicing into her arm with a razor, high on the smell of metal and blood. She still occasionally harboured dreams of steel, sharp blades, blood oozing in perfectly round drops from clean cuts. Her mother had never noticed. Lizzie had always been good at hiding her secrets. Now she was hiding Jason Crow’s secrets too. She was haunted by them, but she waited for the time that they might be useful to her.Chapter Two
Percy steered the Mini down the lane from The Lamb towards the bungalow he shared with his daughter. On the passenger seat beside him sat Madge, a Border-cross and the best dog he’d ever had. She’d win prizes at the trials, if Percy could be arsed to train her properly. Percy’s sight wasn’t so good these days, so he drove with his nose to the windscreen peering at the road ahead. His daughter said he should stop driving, but hadn’t done anything about it. She liked the two hours of peace his time in The Lamb gave her. Besides, the lane didn’t go anywhere except the big house and those fancy barn conversions, and at this time of day those people were all drinking too. Susan, his daughter, went in to clean for them, and she said the recycling bin was full of bottles every week. Major and Mrs C from the big house were away visiting their son in Australia, so they wouldn’t be driving down the lane. There was nothing else to hit, and the car could find its own way home.
Percy found that his mind was wandering. The beer was strong and he’d been persuaded to take a third pint from one of the youngsters who’d moved into the village. He was late. Susan would be waiting for him, her eye on the clock and his tea in the oven. She liked the washing up done and the kitchen all clean and tidy before the start ofEastEnders. Her husband had run away with a lass from Prudhoe as soon as their kids had left home, and Susan had moved in with Percy. To take care of him, she said. To have someone to boss around, he thought, though he was used to her now and would miss her if she moved out.
The lane ran along the bottom of the valley. On each side the hills rose steeply, first to fields quartered with drystone walls where sheep grazed and then to open moorland. Close to the road there were trees, a narrow strip of woodland, with primroses now and the green spears that would turn into bluebells. New leaves just starting and the low sun throwing shadows across the road. He was retired, but he’d always earned his living on farms and could turn his hand to anything. He’d liked sheep-work best and this was his favourite time of year. Lambs on the hill and the scent of summer on the way. The sun starting to get a bit of heat in it.
The third pint was sitting uncomfortably on his bladder. That was something else Susan nagged him to go to the doctor about. He was up to the toilet several times a night. Sometimes he got caught short when he was out, pissing himself like a bairn just out of nappies. There was no fun in getting old, no matter what he said to the kids in the pub about having the perfect life.Me, I’ve got no worries in the world. When you got old there was the worry of indignity and dying. He pulled the car as close to the verge as he could get and jumped out. Just managed to get his zip undone in time, the water in the burn mingling with the sound of his own water aimed at the ditch. There was a moment of relief as he did up his trousers and he thought that he would make an appointment to see the doctor. He couldn’t carry on like this.
Then he saw the boy’s face, half-hidden by cow parsley. The eyes were open and the pale hair drifted in the ditch water like weed. They’d had a dry spell, so the ditch was less than half-full. Most of the face was above the water line. It was unmarked. No lines, no wounds. This was a young man, and he looked as if he’d just gone to sleep. He was wearing a woollen jersey and a waxed jacket, and the clothes that weren’t lying in the mud at the bottom of the ditch looked clean and dry. Percy wasn’t appalled by death. He’d killed beasts and he’d seen dead people. He’d just been too young to serve in the war, but when he was a child it hadn’t been unusual for people to die at home. Now people mocked health-and-safety laws, but there’d been more accidents at work then too. Farm machinery without guards or brakes, foolish men showing off. And he’d been holding his wife’s hand when she slipped away. It was a shock to see the boy lying here and it sobered him up, but he didn’t want to vomit.
He looked at the face more carefully and took a moment to remember when he’d last seen it. Last week in the lounge of The Lamb. Eating one of Gloria’s steak pies. Alone. He’d asked his mate Matty who the boy was, but Matty had no curiosity and didn’t bother answering. And Percy had seen the boy again, more recently. Yesterday morning, strolling down the road towards the village. Percy had been up on the hill walking Madge and had meant to ask Susan about him. Susan was more nebby than he was and she knew all the gossip.
Percy walked back to the car and took the mobile phone out of the glove compartment. All around him blackbirds were singing fit to burst. It was that time of year. The time for marking territories and breeding. He always missed his dead wife most in the spring. Not just the friendship, but the sex.
Susan had given the phone to him so that she could keep track of him. She’d called him earlier this evening to remind him he should be on his way home, and that was why he’d headed straight to the car from the pub, without going to the Gents first. It didn’t do to cross his daughter. He’d never used the phone before, but Susan had talked him through it when she gave it to him. The figures were big, so he could read them easily. His first call was to the bungalow. Susan had a temper on her; she could chuck his tea in the bin if he was late, and now that he was sober he was hungry. Then 999. The person on the other end of the line told him to stay where he was. Percy found a bar of chocolate in his jacket pocket and he waited. Doing what he was told for once.
He’d been expecting a police car or an ambulance. No siren. There was no rush after all; the bloke was quite clearly dead and cold. Percy had been thinking about it. At first he’d assumed some sort of accident. But if the lad had been knocked into the ditch by a car he’d have been lying on top of the vegetation, not hidden underneath it. The same would be true if the man had been taken ill. He might be walking on the verge to keep out of the way of a car or a tractor, but he wouldn’t be that close to the ditch. Percy had come to the conclusion the bloke had been put there. Hidden. Even a walker in the lane wouldn’t have seen the body unless he’d scrambled through the undergrowth like Percy, who’d been trying to retain a bit of his dignity by getting away from the road. Then he heard a vehicle, an old vehicle, coughing and spluttering. Madge had been asleep, but she woke up, gave a little growl until Percy put his hand on her neck. It was a Land Rover, so mucky and bashed that it was impossible to make out the original colour, and there was a woman at the wheel. He got out of his car to tell her that she was on the wrong road and this was a dead-end, and anyway she wouldn’t get past him here, but she stopped and got out. He wondered how her knees managed the weight of her on the deep step down to the tarmac. She was big. No beauty. Bad skin and bad clothes, but lovely eyes. Brown like conkers.
‘Percy Douglas?’ A local voice.
He thought he might have seen her in The Lamb. Not a regular, but occasionally. The size of her, you wouldn’t miss her even if she was sitting on her own in a corner.
‘Aye.’ It still didn’t occur to him that she was here because of the body.
‘I’m Vera Stanhope. Detective Inspector. I don’t get out of the office much these days, but I live not far off, so I thought I’d come along.’ She groped in her pockets for a moment, as if she was planning to show him some ID, but in the end all she pulled out was a half-eaten tube of mints. She gave up. ‘Are you going to let me see this body of yours?’
‘Nothing to do with me.’ But he started down the lane.
‘Hang on. I’d best dress the part or the CSIs will cut me up into slices and stick me in one of their fancy microscopes.’ She reached into the Land Rover and pulled out a packet wrapped in plastic. There was a white paper suit with a hood, and white boots to go over her shoes. ‘I know,’ she said, when she was all dressed up, ‘I look like the Abominable Snowman.’
She made him stay on the lane and point her in the direction of the body. She stood on the bank and looked down into the ditch. ‘How did you find him? You can hardly see him, even from here.’
Percy felt himself blushing.
‘Call of nature, was it?’
‘I get taken short myself these days. Not so easy for a woman. You should thank your lucky stars.’
He could tell she wasn’t thinking about what she was saying. All her attention was on the lad in the ditch.
‘Do you know him?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve seen him about. In the pub in the village once. Walking down the lane a couple of days ago.’
‘Where do you live?’ Her voice friendly, interested.
‘In the bungalow further up the lane. I built it when I first got married. Major Carswell let me have a bit of land. Most of my work was on the estate farms.’
She nodded as if she understood how these things worked. ‘A bit odd then – you not knowing the man. If he was local.’
‘He doesn’t live in the valley.’ Percy was sure about that. ‘He’s a visitor maybe.’ He paused. ‘Susan would probably know.’
‘My daughter. Lives with me.’
There was the sound of another vehicle. This time a police car with a couple of uniformed officers inside. Vera Stanhope climbed back to the lane. ‘The cavalry,’ she said. ‘Just in time. I’m gasping for a cup of tea, and you’ll be starving. Why don’t you make your way home and I’ll follow you when I’ve chatted to the workers. Your Susan can tell me what she knows about the lad in the ditch.’
She turned up half an hour later. Percy and Susan were still at the table, but the cottage pie had been eaten and they were onto tea and home-made cake. His Susan had always been a lovely baker. There was no sweetness in her nature these days and Percy had the sudden notion that it all went into her cakes and puddings. The detective knocked at the kitchen door, but didn’t wait for anyone to answer. Just inside, she pulled off her shoes. Percy thought that was a smart move. Susan couldn’t abide anyone bringing dirt into the house.
‘I hope I’m not disturbing you.’ And with that, the detective was at the table, and Susan had already fetched another cup and saucer. Tea was poured and a slice of cake had been cut. The bright conker eyes were looking at them.
‘Percy here told me you’d know all about the lad he found in the ditch. We’ve got a name for him now, at least. There was a wallet in his jacket with a credit and debit card. And a driver’s licence. Patrick Randle. Does that mean anything to you?’ She bit into the cake.
Susan was enjoying every minute of this. Since Brian had left and the kids had gone away – Karen to university and Lee to the army – gossip was what brought her to life. Malicious gossip suited her best, and she’d upset most of the women in the village. It pained him that she had so few friends. ‘Patrick,’ Susan said, ‘that’s the name of the house-sitter at the Hall.’
Vera looked at her without interrupting, and Susan continued.
‘When the major and his wife go away to stay with their son in Australia, they bring someone in to look after the house. Well, it’s more to look after the dogs really, but they feel happier knowing there’s someone onsite at night. When they’re away I still go in a couple of times a week – it’s a good chance to give the place a good clean – but I wouldn’t want to stay there or walk those great slobbering Labradors.’
‘Is it always Patrick who stays, when they’re on holiday?’ Vera had finished her slice of cake. Without asking, Susan cut her another.
‘No, it’s usually a woman, middle-aged. Name of Louise. This time she was unavailable and the agency sent them the young man. I wasn’t sorry. Louise acted as if she was lady of the manor, all airs and graces. She was the hired help, same as me.’ That bitterness showing itself again.
‘How long has Patrick been here?’ Vera reached out for the teapot.
‘Just a fortnight. He arrived on the Tuesday and that’s one of my cleaning days. Mrs Carswell asked me to show him round and settle him in. There’s a flat in the attic where their eldest Nicholas lived, before he went off to Australia, and the house-sitters always stay there.’
‘What was he like, this Patrick?’
Percy was tempted to leave the women to it. This time of the evening he usually put on the television, and he never liked his routine disturbed. And he thought Susan would show herself up and say something nasty. But there was such a connection between the women, such concentration, that he was scared of moving in case he broke it.
‘He seemed pleasant enough,’ Susan said. Percy felt relieved. ‘Easy to talk to. Relaxed. I asked why he was house-sitting. It seemed an odd way for a bright young man to earn a living.’
‘And what did he say?’
‘That it suited him just at the moment. He was between projects and he was enjoying exploring the country.’
‘Projects?’ Vera squinted at her. ‘What did he mean by that?’
‘I’m not sure. But that was what he said.’
‘Where did he come from?’ The questions were coming quickly now. Percy thought the fat woman would surely have an address, if she’d found his driver’s licence, so what could that be about?’
‘He didn’t say.’ Susan sounded disappointed. He saw that Vera Stanhope was providing her with attention, and she didn’t get much of that these days.
‘But you might be able to guess,’ Vera said. ‘From his voice, the way he spoke.’
Susan thought for a moment. ‘He had a voice like a television newsreader. A bit posh.’
‘From the South then?’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘Yesterday afternoon. Today I work for the people who live in the barn conversions. There are three houses at the end of the valley.’
‘What time yesterday?’ Again the question was fired at speed. Percy thought the woman found it hard for her words to keep up with her brain.
‘About four o’clock. I was in the kitchen and he came in with the dogs.’
‘Did he seem okay? Not anxious about anything?’
Susan shook her head. Again she seemed disappointed because she couldn’t be of more help. She had no juicy bit of information to pass on. The detective got to her feet and that seemed to break a kind of spell, because Percy found that he could stand up now too. At the door the fat woman wobbled a bit as she struggled to pull on her shoes, and Percy put out his hand to steady her.
She turned to Susan and smiled. ‘Have you got a key to the big house? Could I borrow it?’
For a moment Susan was flustered; she’d never been any good at taking responsibility. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps I should call the Carswells and ask their permission. They left me their phone number, in case of emergency.’
‘Why don’t you give me that, as well as the key, and I’ll sort it all out for you?’
So Susan handed over the bunch of keys and the piece of card with the number neatly written on, and the detective left the house.
They stood at the window and watched her walk out to her Land Rover.
‘Nice woman,’ Susan said. ‘You’d think she’d want to lose a bit of weight, though.’Chapter Three
When Vera arrived back at the scene, Joe Ashworth had turned up. He was talking to Billy Cartwright, the crime-scene manager, and they’d taped off the road.
‘You here already, Vera?’ Cartwright said. ‘There’s something ghoulish about the pleasure you take in your work.’
She thought he was probably right, but she didn’t deign to give him an answer.
‘What have we got then, Billy? First impressions?’ Billy might be too fond of the lasses, but he was good at his job.
‘This isn’t where the lad was killed. You need to be looking elsewhere for the murder scene.’
‘Not my job to tell you that, Vera my love. Paul Keating’s on his way.’ Keating, a dour Ulsterman, was the senior pathologist. ‘But I can’t see that it was an accident. He was put in the ditch because it was close enough to the road for someone to get him easily out of a car. And he was hidden. He might have lain there unnoticed for weeks.’
If Percy Douglas hadn’t been caught short. And, by then, the rats and foxes would have been at the body and that would have made life more difficult.
‘Tyre tracks on the verge?’
‘One set, very recent, most probably belonging to the chap who found the body.’
She nodded and thought there was nothing she could do here until the experts had finished poking around. And she was restless. She’d never been good at hanging about. No patience. ‘Joe, you come with me. I know where our victim lived, or where he’d lived for the past fortnight at least.’
He started to climb into the passenger seat of the Land Rover, but she called him back. ‘We’ll walk, shall we? It’s not far and I could do with the exercise.’
He seemed a bit surprised, but he knew better than to question her. Vera liked that about Joe. He could be as bolshie as the rest of the team, but he picked his battles and didn’t make a fuss about the trivial stuff. That got her thinking about Holly, who made a fuss about everything. ‘Has anyone told DC Clarke what’s going on?’
‘Aye, I let her know as soon as the call came through. She said she’d make her own way, but she’d be a while.’
They walked in silence for a moment. Vera was pleased it was just her and Joe. That was how she liked it best. She couldn’t imagine being any closer to a son. There was grass growing in the middle of the road and, once they were out of earshot of Billy and his team, it was very quiet.
‘What is this place then?’ Joe wasn’t a country boy and Vera sensed that he was out of his comfort zone. Joe aspired to a new house on a suburban executive estate, somewhere safe for the kids to play out. His ideal neighbours would be teachers, small-businessmen. Respectable, but not too posh. Vera’s neighbours were aristo hippy dropouts who smoked dope and drank good red wine. And worked their bollocks off on a smallholding in the hills that could hardly provide any kind of living.
‘I’m not sure what they call it. The nearest village is back on the main road. Gilswick. And that’s nothing but a few houses, a church and a pub. Maybe this valley doesn’t have a name of its own.’
They turned a corner and came to the entrance to a drive. Crumbling stone pillars half-covered in ivy. No gate. No house name. Vera had seen it on her way to chat to Percy, but she hadn’t stopped. The drive led through wild woodland underplanted with daffs, and at this point there was no sight of the house.
‘This is a grand sort of place for a young man.’ Joe was tense, a bit anxious. His dad was an ex-miner and Methodist lay preacher. Joe had been brought up to think that all men were equal, but had never quite believed it.
‘He didn’t own it!’ Vera gave a little laugh, but her second-hand impression from Susan was that Patrick Randlemighthave come from somewhere like this. An idle young man with time to laze around in someone else’s home. Enough money not to bother with a proper job. ‘He was the house-sitter.’
‘Someone who looks after a house when the owners are away.’
They turned a corner and the house was in front of them. Not a huge mansion with pillars and turrets. This was compact and square. Old. Solid stone. A pele-tower at one end, long fallen into disuse. One of the fortified farmhouses that had been built along the border, to see off the Scottish reivers. In the last of the sunshine, the stone looked warm. ‘Nice,’ Vera said and felt a momentary stab of envy. Hector, her father, had grown up somewhere like this. The third son with no claim to the land, and anyway he’d upset everyone and the family had disowned him. Then she thought of her little house in the hills – she couldn’t keep that clean and maintained; she’d have no chance with something like this.
They walked on. To the side of the house there was an old-fashioned kitchen garden. Fruit bushes covered with netting, vegetables starting to come up in rows. Everything tidy. Susan hadn’t mentioned a gardener, and Vera thought she would have done if the family had employed a man. So this was the Carswells’ work. They loved this place, and they must surely be retired to devote so much time to it. Beyond the garden the hill rose steeply to a rocky outcrop. They stood for a moment and heard sheep and running water.
Susan’s key let them into a big kitchen. An old cream Aga at one end and a drying rack over it, empty except for dishcloths and tea towels. Beside it stood a basket containing a fat black Labrador, and a blanket on which lay another, thinner dog.
‘Shit!’ said Vera. ‘We’ll need to get someone to take care of the animals.’ She wondered if she might persuade Percy to take them until the family got home. Though it might be more a case of persuading Susan.
There was a big scrubbed pine table. The kitchen was tidy and everything gleamed, but it wasn’tHomes & Gardens. None of the chairs matched and the crockery on the dresser was old and some of it a bit chipped. The rug on the tile floor was made of rush matting. Presumably the cleanliness was Susan’s work. If Randle had lived in the flat in the attic, Vera supposed that he’d have his own kitchen there.
They wandered on through the house. There was a formal dining room, which felt cold and looked as if it was hardly ever used. Dark paintings of Victorian gentlemen in dull gilt frames. French windows led to a terrace of flagstones and then to a lawn. Vera wondered if cutting the grass was part of the house-sitter’s job description. Then a family living room. A fireplace with bookshelves in the alcoves on either side, old sofas scratched by generations of dogs, photos on the mantelpiece. One of a handsome young man in uniform standing next to a young woman in a floral dress; others of the same people as they got older: with two children on a beach, standing outside a college at a son’s graduation, in smart clothes at a daughter’s wedding. The last picture must be recent and showed the two of them sitting on a white bench outside this house. They were probably in their mid-seventies, but wiry and fit. The man looked at the woman with the same adoration as in the first picture.
‘The portrait of a happy marriage,’ Joe said.
‘Man, that’s a bit profound for you.’ Vera kept her voice light, but she was moved too. A tad jealous. She didn’t have any personal experience of happy families. ‘It’s easy enough to be taken in by appearances.’
A wide polished staircase led to the first floor. The bedrooms were big and airy. Old-fashioned furniture, sheets and blankets and floral quilts. None of that duvet nonsense, with cushions on the beds that you only had to throw off before you went to sleep. Two double rooms and two twins – the twin rooms still decorated for children. One with a train set on a big table and a moth-eaten rocking horse. Vera wondered if there’d been grandchildren. There’d surely have been photos, and they hadn’t seen any downstairs. Perhaps the Carswells were waiting in hope for their children to produce offspring. They found one family bathroom with a deep old enamel bath, and a more recent shower room, built in what might once have been a cupboard in the main bedroom. The only gesture towards modernization. No toiletries in either room to indicate they were used by a young man. And still there was no sign of disturbance, nothing that could be considered a crime scene.
‘Where did our victim live then?’ Joe was getting impatient, but Vera didn’t mind taking her time over this stage of the investigation. It was getting the feel of the place. Like setting a scene in a story. You learned a lot about people from the place they lived, and the Carswells might have been halfway around the world when this man was killed, but he was staying in their house.
Joe looked across the bannister and down to the hall below. ‘I mean, you said he lived in the attic, but I can’t see any way up.’
He was right. There were no stairs leading from the first floor. But there definitelywasan attic. Vera had seen the windows from outside. ‘They’ll go from the kitchen,’ she said after a moment’s thought. ‘The staff quarters. You wouldn’t want to see the minions in the main body of the house. Not when this place was first turned into a domestic residence.’ She hoped the Carswells wouldn’t hold that attitude. She liked their house and had a picture of them as friendly people. Open-minded. Though, as she’d told Joe, appearances could be deceptive and she needed to keep an open mind too.
They found the stairs in the kitchen, hidden by what they’d thought was a cupboard door. It was painted white, like the door leading into the walk-in larder on the other side of the range. Behind, steep and very narrow stairs twisted their way up. There was a switch inside and a bare bulb screwed into the wall gave the only light. Perhaps once there’d been access to the first floor, but it seemed that must have been plastered over. Vera thought the work had been done when they’d installed a shower in the cupboard in the main bedroom. But now the stairs continued up and the light hardly reached here. The passage was wider, but still, because of her bulk, she had the nightmare thought that she might get stuck in one of the tight twists, that she’d suffer the indignity of Joe trying to pull her out.
She was starting to feel panicky and claustrophobic by the time she reached the top. The crime-scene suit didn’t help. Behind her Joe was breathing evenly, but she was already out of breath. Another white wooden door. She pushed against it and nothing happened. She pulled it and had to squeeze against the wall because it opened towards her.
‘The maids must have been skinny little things in the old days.’ She gave a little laugh, trying to make light of her discomfort, stepped into a cramped hall and stretched. Bare whitewashed walls. A pair of wellingtons. A scarf and a duffel coat on a hook. The only light came from a small window in the roof. Joe joined her and they took up all the space. She paused for a moment before opening another door into Patrick Randle’s flat.
It was big and light and must have stretched over half the house. This had more the feel of a city loft apartment than a home in the country. The walls sloped, but big windows let in the last of the evening light. The floorboards had been stripped and polished and the doors were open, so Vera could see right to the gable end. There a window was open and they heard the outdoor sounds of woodpigeons and water. Close to the entrance there was a small bathroom. A crumpled towel on the side of the bath. An electric razor on the shelf over the sink. Vera caught her reflection in the mirror and turned away quickly.
The rest of the space was divided by one wall. A large open-plan kitchen and living room took up most of it. In the kitchen section a fridge and a slim cooker. A cup and two plates washed up on the draining board, two more mugs still dirty in the sink. Did that mean that Patrick Randle had entertained a visitor? The rest of the room was furnished with cast-offs from downstairs: a squashy sofa and a scratched dining table. The room wasn’t a mess, but there was clutter. Last week’sObserveron the arm of a chair, a couple of books on the table.
Vera walked on towards the open door that led to the bedroom. The room faced west and it was bright, inviting. It seemed to glow. She stood at the door, aware that Joe was opening drawers in the room behind her, making a first check of Randle’s possessions. Inside the room there was a double bed, low to the floor. The mattress very thin, so she thought it’d be hard to get a good night’s sleep. In one corner a huge, heavy wardrobe. She thought that must have been built up here; you’d never get it up those narrow stairs. In fact all the furniture must have been in place before the door to the first-floor bedroom had been plastered over.
Then she thought it was odd the way your mind worked, because as soon as she’d looked into the room she’d seen the man lying on the floor under the window. So why had she focused on the trivial matter of the furniture? Why had her attention been caught by a monstrous wardrobe? She forced herself to look again. To concentrate, because sometimes first impressions were the most important. In shock you picked up details that you could miss later. This was an older man. Middle-aged. Grey hair, grey suit. A civil servant of a man. He lay on his back and his spectacles were still in place on his nose, though tilted so that he would only see through one of the lenses. His white shirt had been slashed into shreds by the sharpest of knives. The shirt was no longer white, but reddish-brown, and what looked like blood had soaked into the stripped wooden floor beneath him.
Joe must have sensed that something had shocked her because he came up behind her.
‘Stay there!’ It came out as a shout, and she hadn’t intended that. But she was thinking that this was a nightmare. She and Joe had walked from one crime scene to another and any defence lawyer would have a field day about contamination. At least Joe had made her put on the fresh scene suit before coming into the house.
And while all those thoughts were rattling around in her brain something else was going on too. An excitement. Because this was a new case that was different from anything she’d ever worked before. Two bodies, connected but not lying together. And nothing made her feel as alive as murder.Chapter Four
Vera waited in the big house for Paul Keating. She’d given her orders, rattling them off to Joe Ashworth until she’d confused him and had to start again more slowly. Then she’d spoken on the phone to Holly.
‘Where are you, Hol?’
‘On my way, Ma’am.’ The voice sounded as if she was speaking through a piece of hosepipe. She must be using the hands-free set in her car. But, even so, Vera felt a stab of anger. Why did thatMa’amalways sound as if her DC was taking the piss? Cocky and resentful at the same time.
‘Well, don’t stop at the cordon in the lane. I’ll leave instructions for them to let you past. Come to the big house further up the valley. The drive is the first on the left after you pass the crime scene. I’ll be waiting for you.’
‘You don’t want me to help out at the scene?’ She sounded offended. It took very little to offend Holly.
‘Not at the scene in the ditch. There’s been another murder, and I need someone fresh here. We don’t want any further contamination.’ That shut Holly up.
Vera waited outside the house, sitting on the white bench where the photograph of the owners had been taken. It was cooler now, with the sun only just over the horizon, but there was the smell of cut grass that always made her think of summer. She loved this time of year. She’d sent Joe back to the station to start making calls and pulling together information. And to organize all the extra personnel they’d need for the following day. She’d already talked to Billy Cartwright on the phone. They’d need a different team at each locus, and she wanted him to supervise both, so he’d need to bring in another manager for the lane as well as for the house. Paul Keating was the only Kimmerston pathologist on call. He’d said he’d try to pull in a colleague to help with the post-mortems, but he wanted to look at both scenes himself. ‘Don’t worry, Inspector. I’ll change before I head up to you. We’re aware of the dangers of cross-contamination.’ She’d known him for decades, but he’d never used her first name.
There was the sound of a car on the drive. Holly’s Nissan. Very new and very sensible. No fun. The young woman got out, slender legs first.
Am I just jealous? Because she’s young and bonny and organized? Am I being unfair?
‘You said there was a second murder.’ Holly was already struggling into the paper suit, pulling bootees over her shoes and tucking her hair into the hood.
‘A middle-aged man in the flat where the house-sitter was staying. It looks as if he’s been stabbed, though there was no sign of a knife on my first quick search. No sign of a break-in, either, so it’s possible that he was known to our first victim.’ Vera thought that an intruder would be unlikely to wander into the flat in the attic without prior knowledge of the building’s layout. Any valuables would be in the main part of the house, and it had taken her and Joe a while to find the entrance to the staircase in the kitchen. But those speculations could wait.
‘Nothing yet. I’ve sent Joe back with a photograph to circulate. Our victim looks the sort who’d be reported missing, though. Respectable. You know.’
Holly gave a brief nod.
‘The first victim is Patrick Randle. Aged twenty-five. He was employed by an agency to stay in the house while the owners were away. I’m presuming they wanted someone to walk the dogs and cut the grass, and they could afford to pay an outsider to do it, but we’ll need to check the details. Joe will phone them from the station.’
Holly nodded again.
‘Shall we go up then?’ Without waiting for an answer Vera went inside the house. She locked the kitchen door behind them, then opened the painted door by the side of the Aga. ‘You go up first.’ She didn’t want Holly following her up the stairs, muttering when the progress was slow. ‘There’s a small passageway at the top. Wait for me there.’
Randle’s flat was in shadow now. Vera flicked a switch and spotlights fixed to the beams in the sloping ceiling lit the rooms. For a moment she wondered if she’d imagined it all. She’d look into the bedroom and there’d be no body on the floor. The stripped pine boards would be clean. But the middle-aged man was still there, caught in the pool of artificial light.
Vera stopped at the doorway and moved aside so that Holly could see into the bedroom. ‘I don’t want to go in there. I saw the body from here and haven’t been over the threshold. This is a fresh scene suit, but I was out near the ditch to look at Randle. We don’t want a defence lawyer screaming further down the line that we didn’t keep everything separate.’
‘You want me to go in?’
Well, I didn’t bring you out here for your scintillating company.Vera took a breath, told herself again that she was probably just jealous. No other reason why this woman should get under her skin. ‘Yes please, Hol. It’ll take Billy a while to get a separate team of CSIs here and I’d like to see if there’s any ID on the body. And while you’re in there, have a look for the weapon. I’d say we’re looking for a very sharp knife and it might have been thrown under the bed or a chair.’
Holly walked into the room. She made her way to the far side of the body so that Vera would have a good view of what she was doing.
She’s bright,Vera thought,considers everything.
The younger woman squatted by the side of the body, taking care not to move it or touch the skin, and reached into the pockets on the suit jacket. First the outside pockets, and then she lifted the cloth so she could get into those on the inside. She shook her head. ‘Nothing.’
‘Try the trousers.’
‘I can only get to the front pockets without moving him.’
‘That’ll do.’ Vera thought that only younger men carried important things in their back pockets anyway. Or middle-aged men in jeans. This man would have his wallet inside his jacket. A wallet and his keys. And that led her to wonder how the victim had got here and, if Patrick Randle had owned a car, where it might be kept. There had been no vehicles parked on the gravel outside the house. She was still thinking about that when Holly stood up.
‘Sorry, Ma’am. Nothing. That’s unusual, isn’t it?’
‘His pockets have been emptied,’ Vera said. ‘To delay identification, or for some other reason.’
Holly kneeled again to look under the bed. ‘No sign of a knife.’
Downstairs in the big kitchen Vera was on the phone to Joe. ‘Can you get me the registration details of Randle’s vehicle? We found a driver’s licence on him. There was nothing on the grey man’s body, so an ID for him would be brilliant.’
‘The grey man?’
‘The man in the flat.’ That was how she was thinking of him. As a grey man. Anonymous. She waited on the line while Joe dug out the details of Randle’s car. A small VW, only a year old. Would a young man be able to afford a car like that? Unless he had wealthy parents? She wasn’t sure. The young had always been a mystery to her, even when she’d been one of their ranks. She’d understand the grey man better and felt more sympathy for him, without knowing anything at all about him.
They went outside. ‘There are some buildings at the back.’ Vera’s feet crunched on the gravel, slightly muffled by the paper overshoes. ‘I’m assuming one of those has been used as a garage.’ The light had thickened into dusk. A bat skimmed over their heads. Vera waited for Holly to scream, but she gave no reaction.
There were two garages. One was a small open-fronted barn, rickety and in need of repair. Against one wall stood a neat stack of logs, depleted after the winter. That was where they found Randle’s car. ‘We won’t be able to get into the vehicle,’ Vera said. ‘There was a bunch of keys on Randle’s body, and Billy has those.’ Holly put on new gloves and tried the handle. The car was unlocked. Was that carelessness or a sense that crime would be unusual out here in the valley? Again Vera thought that the boy must have money, if he cared so little about security. They looked through the windows, but didn’t get into the vehicle. There were two empty Coke cans on the passenger seat. In the back a brown Manila file was stuck in the side pocket.
‘I want to see that,’ Vera said, ‘as soon as the CSIs have finished with it.’ She paused. This was where the gravel ended and the vegetable garden began. There was no sign of another vehicle and the second garage was locked. So how had the older man arrived at the house? The nearest public transport would be the bus to Gilswick, and she guessed they’d be as common as hens’ teeth. Then there’d be the walk down the lane. A good two miles, possibly more. In his grey suit and his city shoes. Someone would surely have seen him if he’d made the journey during daylight. Otherwise he must have got a lift. That would have been organized in advance. The grey man wouldn’t be the kind to hitch-hike. Or a taxi. Or – and as Vera considered the possibilities, this seemed most likely – Randle had brought him here. And that meant there must be some connection between the two men. They’d arranged to meet.
The second garage was more solid, stone-built to go with the house, but put up more recently. A padlock held the two doors together. Vera tried the smallest key on the bunch given to her by Susan and it opened as smoothly as if it had just been oiled. Inside there were two cars: a new Range Rover and an elderly Morris Minor estate, obviously much loved. The women stood at the door and looked in.
‘The family that lived here had money,’ Holly said.
Vera nodded.Money, but class. Nothing too showy here. Nothing ostentatious.Then she remembered that nobody had spoken to the Carswells yet. She needed to know that they really were in Australia, and they might have more information about Randle. She’d had the impression they’d already left when the house-sitter arrived and that Susan had managed the handover, but one of them had probably talked to Randle on the phone. She called Joe again and left him more instructions. ‘See if any of the local taxi firms brought our second victim to the big house. Have you talked to the Carswells in Adelaide yet?’
‘I’ve tried, but there was no response. It was still early morning there then and they might have been asleep. I was going to give it another hour.’
‘I’d like to know what contact they had with their house-sitter. Did they meet him before he started work? The cleaner settled him, so the Carswells weren’t here when he arrived.’
Suddenly the garden was flooded with light. Two lamps on black iron stands set along the drive and one fixed outside the main front door had switched on. Presumably they were on a timer or had a light sensor. Was that a security measure or just about convenience? Holly was walking away from the garage and back towards the house. A tawny owl started calling from the trees behind them. It seemed to have become night very quickly.
That word again. Vera remembered a line from one of the cop shows that she pretended never to watch on the telly.Don’t call me that! I’m not the bloody queen.She took a breath. ‘Got something, Hol?’
Vera walked over to her colleague. Holly looked as insubstantial as a ghost, but Vera’s shadow was very sharp in the white light. Sharp and even bigger than usual, because she was still wearing the scene suit. Holly was looking into a small pond. It was surrounded by flagstones, slippery with lichen. The water looked black and oily. Everything monochrome. Now there was a half-moon and that was white too.
In the mud at the side of the pond, only visible because one of the lamp stands stood right beside it, was a knife. Thin-bladed, with a black handle. Vera thought it was similar to the ones she’d seen in the kitchen of the flat, slotted into a wooden block.
‘What do you think?’ Holly sounded very pleased with herself. ‘Could this be our murder weapon?’
Before Vera could answer, before she could shower Holly with the praise the DC obviously felt was her due, headlights swept across the black grass. This would be Paul Keating and the new team of CSIs. Again, the cavalry arriving just in time.Chapter Five
Tuesday night. Annie was ready to go next door for the drinks party. They were supposed to take it in turns to host, but somehow they usually ended up at Nigel and Lorraine’s house. And this was unusual, a midweek celebration because it was Lorraine’s birthday. Sam had made a rabbit terrine and a pudding, a chocolate tart that managed to be rich but not too sweet. One of his signature dishes from the old days. He’d much rather cook than have his home invaded. The food was standing on the bench in the kitchen, and Sam was in the kitchen too, waiting for her. Annie wasn’t sure what he made of their Valley Farm social whirl. When they’d had the restaurant she’d always done front-of-house and Sam had never seemed to need friends. Now every week it seemed there was an excuse for a party. She knew she should go downstairs to see him, because he fretted about being late. Waiting made him nervous.
Instead she went into Lizzie’s room. Lizzie would be home soon, but they didn’t talk about her. The silence had become a wall between them. Their daughter had been the only cause of stress in their marriage. Now, Annie thought, Sam preferred to pretend that she’d never existed.
It was almost dark and there were lights in the valley. Strong white lights, which enabled her to see that there were cars parked along the lane close to the entrance to the Hall. Annie thought the others at Valley Farm would be interested to know about that. In the quiet days of their retirement they all loved a drama. She took Lizzie’s last letter out of her bag. It was written on cheap lined paper, with the name of the prison stamped on the top. It would have been an ugly object, but for Lizzie’s writing, which was strong and rather beautiful. Annie read it again. There was nothing much of significance. News from the farm, which was more like a smallholding, where the prison grew vegetables for its own use and kept a few rare breed pigs. Then:I’m looking forward to seeing you both. Had she ever expressed any affection for her parents before? Annie certainly couldn’t remember. Lizzie had been prickly even as a baby, turning her head away when they tried to stroke her hair to make her sleep, lying rigid under the pretty quilt when they leaned over the cot to kiss her goodnight.
‘Are you ready?’ Sam had moved to the bottom of the stairs and was shouting up. Wanting information, not grumpy or impatient. He was the most patient man Annie had ever met.
‘Just coming!’ She returned the letter to her bag. When it had first arrived in the post she’d left it on the kitchen table for him to read, while she went out into the garden. If hehadread it, he hadn’t said. Perhaps he was still angry about the way Lizzie had behaved. Perhaps he only contained the fury by shutting down all his emotions.
He’d packed the food into a wicker basket and covered it with a clean tea towel. Very WI. Annie thought he’d make a much better member of the institute than her. There was a bottle of good red under his arm. Outside in the clear air they heard distant noises, shouted voices from the cars on the track.
‘What’s going on?’ Sam sounded mildly curious.
‘I don’t know. I saw it from upstairs. Perhaps some TV company filming?’
‘Don’t tell Nigel,’ Sam said. ‘He’ll drag us all down to be in it. You know how he loves to be the centre of attention.’ He had the slow, soft accent that belonged to that part of Northumberland; sometimes she thought his voice was unique to the valley, and that he was the only one of them who truly belonged here.
They paused for a moment outside the farmhouse window and looked inside. Nigel and Lorraine were already playing host, pouring Prosecco into tall fluted glasses. They did love their fizz. The professor, another of the neighbours, was there already. A big presence. Hair still mostly dark, despite his age. Eyes that were almost black. Lorraine had once said, ‘John O’Kane looks like a poet, don’t you think?’ Speaking with something like admiration in her voice. Annie had wondered if there could be an attraction there. Nigel was lovely to Lorraine of course, but certainly not poetic. You certainly couldn’t describe him as soulful.
As they watched, the professor’s wife Jan appeared in the room. She must have come in through the back door. She was wearing a dress that she might have owned when she was a student: long, with flowery prints in blue and green, frilly at the neck and very Laura Ashley. Now it didn’t suit her. Her hair was wiry and curly and streaked with grey and she looked like an eccentric Edwardian grandmother. John looked at her, not exactly with disdain; more like disappointment. Annie wondered how she would feel if Sam looked atherlike that.
Sam had already knocked at the door. He wasn’t comfortable with the Valley Farm residents’ habit of letting themselves into each other’s houses. Nigel Lucas came to answer. He was a short man. Of all of her neighbours, Annie thought he was the hardest to get to know and wasn’t sure how else to describe him. She thought he was ambitious and a social climber, but very kind.
‘Come in!’ Below the voices in the room beyond there was music. Jazz. A double bass, insistent like a heartbeat. ‘You know you’d be welcome, even without Sam’s delicious offerings.’ It seemed Nigel couldn’t speak without flattering, and it came to Annie that he was less confident even than Sam. Nigel was desperate to please, but Sam didn’t really care what other people thought.
As they walked into the living room a phone rang in the distance. Lorraine Lucas went to answer it, shimmying to the music, the silk of her loose trousers catching the candlelight.
When she returned she stood inside the door. They fell silent and looked at her. She had that kind of presence.
‘You’ll never guess.’ Her eyes were huge. ‘That was Susan. She heard it from her father. There’s been a murder in the valley.’Chapter Six
The three detectives met up late that evening at Vera’s house. It was just across the hill from Gilswick, closer than the police station in Kimmerston, and Joe was summoned to bring pizza and beer on his way home. He caught the takeaway-pizza place just before it was closing and had to pay over the odds for beer in a small convenience store. He was surprised to see that Holly was there, sitting in the chair that he thought of as his own. He couldn’t remember her ever being invited to Vera’s house before and she seemed uncomfortable, a bit nervous. There was a wood fire in the grate, but the logs must have been damp because it soon fizzled into nothing and Vera made no move to revive it.
Holly sat in her coat and nibbled at a slice of pizza. She’d refused the beer and now held a mug of instant coffee. He couldn’t see her drink from it; perhaps the mug hadn’t reached her standards of hygiene. He hadn’t really wanted alcohol, either, though he took a bottle to keep Vera company. To prove his allegiance? He still felt weird, disengaged. Two murders in a valley where nothing happened, where smart people lived. He couldn’t take it in.
Vera was talking. She seemed to have a personality transplant when they were in the middle of an investigation. To become younger and more energetic. She stopped grizzling about her health, her itchy skin and the aches in her legs. Joe thought that Billy Cartwright knew her too well: there was something ghoulish about her passion for her work; for suspicious death and other people’s tragedies.
‘We have ID on the boy in the ditch. Patrick Randle. Joe, what do we know about him?’
‘He only registered with the house-sitting agency six months ago. He looked after a place in Devon for a month and then a flat in Hampstead.’
Holly looked up. ‘That’s in London.’
‘Yes, Holly, we do know that.’ Vera was at her most imperious. A pause. ‘Do we know if Randle was offered the Carswell job just by chance? Or did he ask to come to Northumberland?’
Joe thought Vera had a knack for making them all defensive. ‘Oh, I’m not sure. The woman I spoke to didn’t seem to know the details. The agency owners were out for the evening.’ He realized that he sounded like a schoolboy making excuses because he hadn’t done his homework. ‘But I did find out a bit more about Randle and the agency.’
‘The owners of the agency are a couple called Cunningham and the company’s based in Surrey. As I said, Randle had only been on their books for six months. Because the house-sitters are put into a position of trust, they’re all vetted pretty carefully. They need a CRB check, at least two references and an interview. Randle had no criminal record and he provided two good referees. One was the supervisor of his PhD and the other was the priest in the village where he’d grown up.’
Joe checked his notes. ‘A place called Wychbold in Herefordshire.’
‘Is he still a student then?’ Vera finished the beer in her bottle and set it on the floor beside her chair.
‘No, he recently completed his doctorate and was taking some time out, before heading straight back to academia for postdoctoral research. A bright lad apparently.’
‘What subject?’ This was Holly, who seemed to be feeling left out.
‘Family?’ Vera asked.
‘Mother, still living in Herefordshire. The locals have informed her of her son’s death. Randle was an only child, and his father died when he was a teenager.’
Vera smiled at him, the closest she’d get to telling him he’d done a good job. Then she lay back in her chair and raised her eyes to the ceiling, which was nicotine-brown and hadn’t been decorated since her father, Hector, had died. Smoking was one of the few vices in which she didn’t indulge. ‘Of course it’s important that we find out if Randle asked to come to Northumberland. We need to find out if he had a specific reason for being in Gilswick, or if this was random.’
There was a moment of silence.
‘Could it have been a burglary gone wrong?’ It had crossed Joe’s mind that some of those paintings downstairs in the big house might be valuable, and there could have been bits of jewellery in the master bedroom. His Sal made him watchAntiques Roadshowon a Sunday night and he was always astounded at the value put on stuff he wouldn’t give house-room to.
‘Well, that might work, if Randle’s was the body in the house and we didn’t have a second corpse.’ This time Vera made him feel like the stupid kid at the back of the class. ‘Besides, I didn’t get the feel that anything had been taken, and there was no sign of a break-in.’
Holly shot Joe one of her superior looks.
There was a moment’s pause.
‘Do we know anything about the older man?’ Vera asked at last. ‘The man in the flat. Anything from the second CSI team, Joe? Holly didn’t find anything in the pockets that she could get to easily.’
‘Still no ID,’ Joe said. ‘They’ve taken fingerprints, but there’s no match yet. And when I left the station there’d been no missing-person report that could have been him.’ He was starting to think of the older victim as the ‘grey man’ now too. Grey and almost invisible.
‘And no information on how he actually got to the house?’ Absent-mindedly Vera reached out for another beer.
‘No, but we haven’t canvassed the neighbours yet.’ By the time they’d got a team together, most of the villagers would be in bed.
‘That’s a priority for the morning then. Let’s talk to Percy Douglas and his daughter again. Then apparently there are some fancy barn conversions at the end of the lane. The victim wouldn’t have passed them to get to the big house, but the residents might have been out and about this afternoon.’
‘It couldn’t have been a murder followed by suicide?’ Holly was tentative, worried about being shouted down.
‘You mean Randle killed the older man, then himself?’ Vera didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand, but she sounded sceptical. ‘Have we got a cause of death for Randle yet, Joe? Dr Keating was at that locus first.’
‘He says they’ll do both autopsies first thing tomorrow; after working two scenes he needs a break and doesn’t want to start tonight. He’ll bring in a colleague to help, but he’ll supervise both. He’ll move on to the grey man once they’ve completed the forensic capture on Randle.’ Joe paused for a moment. ‘He said he’d go for a seven o’clock start. He hasn’t got much on just now, so the place will be quiet.’
‘Did he tell you how Randle died?’ Vera sounded impatient. Joe thought that, unlike the pathologist,shewouldn’t need a break. If she had her way, they’d be in the mortuary now, working through the night. ‘Keating must have some idea! Was he stabbed, like the older man? I couldn’t tell from the top of the bank. If hewasstabbed, it must have been in the back, because there was no disturbance to the front of the clothes. And it looked to me as if he was placed under the cow parsley. I can’t see how he could have done that himself.’
‘A double-killing then?’ Joe stretched. He supposed this would mean big-style overtime. Sal liked the extra money, but not the fact that he wouldn’t see the bairns awake until all this was over.
‘Though Hol found a knife in the pond at the big house.’ Vera ignored him and continued her train of thought. She was like a tank when she got going. Relentless. Nothing would stop her. ‘If we assume that it was the murder weapon and that Randle was stabbed too, it makes sense that the young man was killed somewhere near the house. Otherwise the killer would have had to go back to the house to chuck the knife in the pool. Joe, will you organize a proper search of the garden tomorrow. The big cheeses won’t make a fuss about resources, not with two deaths and the press going ape.’
Joe could tell her mind was sparking and fizzing and she was still considering the possibilities. He thought she would probably be up all night, working through multiple scenarios. He hoped Keating had switched off his phone; otherwise he’d get no rest, either. She’d pick at every thread until one led to real information.
‘But the only blood in the flat or the rest of the house was under the older man, so we definitely need the search team in for the garden. I can’t see that Randle was killedinthe flat.’ Vera looked up at him. ‘Did you get through to the Carswells, the home owners?’
‘Yes, I spoke to Mrs Carswell, just before I left the station.’
‘On the landline number I gave you? Not a mobile?’
He smiled, understanding the way her mind was working. ‘They’re definitely in Australia. There’s no way they could be our murderers.’
‘And? Had they met Randle?’
‘No, but they had chatted to him on the phone.’ Joe looked at his notes again. ‘Mrs Carswell said he was well spoken and very pleasant. They were reassured that he’d be perfect for what they needed.’
‘How did she take the news that we found a body in her attic?’ Vera still had the energy of a hyperactive three-year-old.
How do you think she took it? A complete stranger was stabbed in her home.Joe kept his voice even. No point winding her up even more. ‘I described the dead man, but she said it didn’t sound like any of her acquaintances. She would ask her husband and get back to me if they had any thoughts.’
‘Are they planning to come home immediately? That’d make life complicated. It’s useful to have the big house empty.’
‘Nah. Their son’s girlfriend’s expecting a baby. The first grandchild. They’ll stay on until after the birth.’
Joe shut his notebook and then remembered something else. ‘She said not to ask Susan to look after the dogs. Apparently the woman hates them, but she’s the best cleaner they’ve ever had and they don’t want to lose her. Mrs Carswell said that there’s a family in one of the barn conversions – Professor and Mrs O’Kane – who’d take the dogs in. I’ve spoken to the team on the ground and asked them to sort it out.’
Joe stood up and made it clear he was planning to leave. His toddler was going through a nocturnal phase and, though she didn’t work outside the home, Sal made it quite clear that he should take his turn. He was shattered already.
Vera finished her beer and set her glass on the table in front of her. ‘So we have three priorities for tomorrow.’ She held up a fat thumb and two fingers of her right hand in order, as if she was counting. ‘We need to find out where Randle was killed, and at least get a name for the older man. And talk to the neighbours in the valley.’
Holly seemed relieved that Joe was making a move and started packing her iPad into her bag. He knew she thought this sort of discussion was a waste of time and preferred structured briefings in the police station. He sometimes wondered why she wanted to rush home. As far as he knew, there was nobody waiting for her. He’d never been invited into her flat in Gosforth, but she hadn’t mentioned a partner. Her sexuality was the subject of curiosity at the station, but maybe that was only because she’d made it clear that she didn’t welcome advances from male colleagues.
Vera got to her feet to see them out. The empty pizza boxes were on the floor and she picked up a scrap of crust from one of them and stuck it in her mouth. ‘Are you okay to do the post-mortems with me, Hol?’
Joe was glad not to have the early start, but felt abandoned. Vera usually liked him with her in the mortuary. She’d once said that Holly was like a puppy needing a run. ‘All that energy. I find it distracting. And it doesn’t feel respectful in the presence of a corpse.’
They stood for a moment with the door open. Below them a string of lights marked the village that represented Vera’s nearest civilization. They’d nearly reached the cars when Vera shouted after them, ‘And for Christ’s sake, Joe, get a decent night’s sleep. You’re no good to me looking like a washed-out dishcloth.’
He didn’t like to say that it would be his turn with his youngest child, if she decided to wake in the night. Vera might be all for gender equality at work, but she thought Sal’s sole purpose in life was to preparehimfor work with her.
In the end the toddler slept well until nearly six. Then Joe made coffee and switched on the television. He’d wake Sal at seven and still get to the police station before Vera and Holly returned from the post-mortem. He took his coffee into the lounge. The bairn was on the carpet playing with a stack of blocks. Happy as Larry, so Joe switched from CBeebies to the breakfast news to see if there was anything on the Gilswick double-murder. Nothing on the national news, and only a brief piece on the local. It would have been too late the night before for the press office to get out a media release. He carried on watching anyway. There was a feature about immigration, a reporter in the street asking passers-by what they thought about border controls. Usually the journalist got the answers he was hoping for: bluster and bigotry. As Joe looked, the reporter approached a man walking down the pavement towards him. The man just shook his head and hurried on, ignoring the fact that the reporter was calling after him, ‘Surely you must have an opinion, sir.’
Joe grabbed the remote, pressed a button to pause the piece and then played it again. No doubt; the bloke who’d refused to answer the journalist’s question was their second victim, the middle-aged man in the grey suit. He thought Holly would be a Radio 4 person. She might not even own a television, and anyway she’d be in the hospital, helping Paul Keating with the forensic capture of Patrick Randle’s body. Holly wouldn’t be the person to deliver news to the boss that might lead them to their older victim’s identity. The thought cheered him up and carried him through the changing of a stinking nappy.Chapter Seven
Vera stood in the mortuary with Holly, Billy Cartwright and Paul Keating. Randle was lying on the stainless-steel table and, as his clothes were cut away, Billy was bagging them. Holly was taking notes. Vera was trying to contain her impatience. She understood that Keating was meticulous and hated being forced into speculation, but still she found this waiting for a cause of death impossible. She would have preferred to be with the search team in the valley at Gilswick, looking for the place where Randle had died. Or in Percy’s bungalow, talking to him about life in the tiny community, asking if he’d seen her grey man the day before.
But she tried to focus. Patrick Randle’s clothes would tell them something about the man, and Holly knew all about clothes. ‘What do you think, Hol? Can we tell the sort of chap he was by what he’s wearing?’
The DC looked up from her notebook. She always seemed surprised when Vera asked her opinion. ‘I’m not sure. Waxed jacket. Barbour. That wouldn’t be cheap. It’s a good-quality shirt, but something that an older man might wear in the country. Is that a stain on the back?’ Billy Cartwright shifted the clear plastic bag so that they could all see. ‘It’s certainly well worn and rubbed at the neck. On top of that, a jumper. Round-necked. Hand-knitted.’
‘Is it?’ Vera hadn’t noticed and she was surprised. When she’d been growing up sometimes bairns wore hand-made clothes, but it wasn’t so common for adults. These days she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a man in a hand-knitted top.
Holly continued. ‘Jeans. Levis. Underwear from M&S. Shoes. Very good-quality, leather soles as well as leather uppers. Well polished and well looked after.’
‘So what does that tell us, Hol? A typical student, do we think? Doesn’t sound like it to me.’
‘It depends which university he went to. Maybe he’d fit into one of the smarter ones.’ She sounded unsure.
‘Oxford or Cambridge, do you think? Joe didn’t tell us where he did his PhD.’ Vera was feeling out of her depth. When she was young, all students had looked the same – as if they’d bought their clothes from the church jumble sale. ‘We’ll get Joe to find out.’ Her frustration spilled over. ‘Any chance of getting to the cause of death, Doctor? Sometime this month would be good.’
Keating looked up from his work. ‘Patience, Inspector.’ Friendly enough. ‘The younger man’s death was caused by a blunt-force trauma blow to the head. I think one blow, because of the lack of spatter on the clothes. There’s just that small stain on the shirt.’
‘And you couldn’t tell me this last night? You must have been able to tell he’d not been stabbed, as soon as you moved the body.’
Keating didn’t answer immediately. ‘I thought you deserved your beauty sleep, Inspector.’
His assistant muffled a giggle. There was an awkward silence. Vera continued, ‘But there’s no stain on the jumper.’
‘So he was just wearing a shirt when he was attacked?’ She was running through various scenarios to explain the fact. Why would a killer add extra clothes to the victim’s body after death?
‘I think that’s a logical assumption.’
‘Why was one victim stabbed and the other bludgeoned to death?’ Vera’s mind was racing. ‘If they were both killed at the same time, wouldn’t the same weapon be used?’ She turned to the pathologist. ‘I’m assuming they both were killed at the same time.’
Keating shrugged. ‘You should know by now that we can’t pin down the time of death with that kind of pinpoint accuracy.’
‘But Randle might have been killed in the flat, with the middle-aged man?’
‘That’s entirely possible.’ This time Billy Cartwright joined in. ‘The search team only made a start yesterday. We’re stretched. Of course we’ll be checking for blood stains, anything that places Randle there after his death.’
But I didn’t see anything. There was no blood, except under the older man.
‘Then why move him!’ She realized the words had come out as a cry. ‘Why dress him up in a jumper and a jacket and risk being seen carrying him into the ditch?’
‘I do bodies,’ Keating said, ‘not mind-reading. I’m afraid I can’t answer that for you.’
‘And I’m not saying that Randlewaskilled in the flat in the big house.’ Billy Cartwright seemed to be enjoying her discomfort. ‘Not yet. Just that it is a possibility.’
‘Can you tell me anything about the knife Hol found in the pond?’ Vera thought this was just too complicated. She’d assumed a double-murder, both men killed with the same knife.
‘We’re pretty sure it’s one of a set from the kitchen in the flat. You noticed yourself that one was missing from the block on the counter. We can tell you later if it matches the wounds on the older man.’
‘So the killer didn’t come prepared,’ Vera said. ‘Not into the flat, at least.’ Possibilities flashed into her mind, but nothing made sense.
Later they were in the briefing room at Kimmerston. Vera had left Holly to be present at the second postmortem. There were already photos on the whiteboard: close-ups of Patrick Randle and of the chap Vera called the ‘grey man’. Pictures of the ditch and its vegetation, the outside of the manor house and inside Randle’s flat. On the desks where the team was sitting a pile of bacon sandwiches, half-eaten, and torn sachets of brown sauce. Bodies never put Vera off her food.
‘We know nothing about this man.’ Pointing to the second victim. ‘Nobody’s got in touch overnight to report him missing. I’ve just checked. And precious little about this one.’ Jabbing a ruler at Randle. ‘Joe, have we got a bit more from the agency?’
‘It seems Randledidrequest a placement in Northumberland when he first joined up with them, so they put him in for the Carswell job and gave him two short-term contracts while he was waiting to start it.’
‘Do we know why he was interested in coming to Northumberland?’ It seemed to Vera that this made the killing less likely to be random, or the work of some delusional mad person.
‘He told the agency he was interested in natural history and this was an area he hadn’t explored yet.’
‘I suppose that could be true. If he had an ecology degree.’ But Vera thought the request lay at the heart of the case. They needed to know exactly what had brought Randle north.
‘I’ve spoken to the mother.’ Joe’s voice was sombre. He was a great family man, a bit too soft-hearted for a policeman, in Vera’s opinion; but then she thought Holly was heartless, so perhaps she was never pleased.
‘She’s older than I was expecting, in her late sixties. She said Patrick came when she’d given up having another child. He read directly from his notes. “But not an afterthought – a consolation.”’
‘I thought he was an only son.’ Charlie looked up from his sandwich.
Vera gave a slow clap of her hands. ‘So you’re awake after all. And listening! I was wondering.’
‘There was another boy,’ Joe said. ‘Simon. He’d have been nineteen years older than Patrick. Apparently he committed suicide. When he was a student.’
‘Oh,’ Vera was moved almost to tears. ‘The poor woman.’
‘Patrick did his first degree in York and his Masters and his PhD in Exeter.’
‘Not one of the posh ones then?’
‘Posh enough,’ Joe said. ‘Apparently. I asked Sal. She’s already been reading up on unis. We’ve got high hopes for our Jess.’ There was a moment of silence and Joe looked up at Vera. ‘The mother would like to come up to view the body.’
‘Oh,’ Vera said again. She thought that would be a job for Joe. He was good at all the touchy-feely stuff and he’d know how to handle it. Though maybe Holly needed the practice. ‘Well, I suppose that saves us having to make the trek down to chat to her.’
Vera perched on a desk, her fat legs swinging. She was wearing square lace-up shoes and her feet banged against the table leg. She was aware that the team was waiting for her to speak. ‘So we’re starting to build up a picture of the youngest victim, but we still don’t know anything about the older man.’
Joe stood up. She realized he wanted them all to take notice of him, and that wasn’t like Joe. He waited until he had their full attention before he spoke. ‘We know where he was yesterday morning.’
Vera turned slowly to face him. She stopped her legs from swinging. ‘And where was that?’
‘Kimmerston Front Street. A BBCLook Northreporter was canvassing opinion about immigration from the EU, and our second victim was one of the people stopped.’
‘And you know this how, Joe?’
‘I saw him on breakfast telly and called the BBC in Newcastle as soon as I got in. The reporter isn’t at his desk yet, but they could tell me where the film was made.’ Joe tried not to grin.
Vera began to chuckle. ‘You spawny git, Joe Ashworth. Better to be lucky than to be smart any time. I don’t suppose the reporter asked for his name?’
‘I don’t know yet, but I’ll soon find out.’Chapter Eight
Back at his desk, Joe called the BBC in Newcastle and was put through to the reporter, who sounded older and more experienced than he’d looked on the screen.
‘So you’re saying that one of the guys I interviewed was the victim in the Gilswick double-murder?’ In his head the man would be imagining a spot on the national television news. Fame at last.
‘That’s not information that we’d like to make public at this point. Not until we can be sure of his identification, and his family have been informed.’
‘Of course.’ So the man was responsible at least. He knew he’d still be able to use the clip, once they gave permission, and he’d get credited then.
Joe took a deep breath. ‘Did you take his name?’
‘I didn’t get a chance. I don’t like to hassle people and I wouldn’t have spoken to him, but he walked straight towards me on the pavement. I thought he must be interested in getting his face on the TV, and most of the punters I’d spoken to were younger, so he’d be a good contrast. Maybe bring a different perspective. That was why I pushed it, when he refused to engage.’
‘Why did he approach you then, if he didn’t want to be interviewed?’ Anyone in the street with a clipboard and Joe immediately crossed to the other side.
‘I don’t think he noticed me. He seemed completely preoccupied, wrapped up in thoughts of his own. I think he was startled when I spoke to him.’
‘Is there anything else you can tell me?’ Joe was starting to think that he wasn’t being so lucky after all.
‘He walked away up Front Street and I’m fairly sure that he went into an office on the corner.’
Joe shut his eyes and pictured the scene. Front Street had a row of traditional shops and then there was a newer place. Ugly. Glass and concrete, with the concrete disfigured with damp. Pale-green paint. It had a shop with cards in the window, and inside a row of computers that looked more like gaming machines. And perhaps getting work in Kimmerston was a bit of a lottery. ‘The Job Centre?’
‘Of course! That’s it. Yes, he went into the Job Centre.’
Joe thought his luck must have held out after all. If the man was a claimant, they’d have all his details on file. And if he’d made an appointment or spoken to an officer, it would be easy enough to get a name. Though it was more likely, Joe thought, remembering the grey suit and the old-fashioned specs, that their victim worked there. He looked like the stereotypical civil servant.
‘What time were you recording in Kimmerston?’
‘I started just after midday. We waited for the clock on the market square to finish chiming before we began. Finished about thirty minutes later. We didn’t need much to go with the news report.’
So their grey man could have been out of the office for his lunch-break.Joe pulled his jacket from the back of the chair and went out. The Job Centre was only five minutes away and Vera always said that face-to-face interviews were more valuable than the phone. He took with him the head-shot of the victim.
It was another sunny day. In the street a couple of young mothers sat at tables outside the coffee shop in the square, chatting as toddlers in buggies snoozed. Elderly women were taking their time shopping, stopping to greet friends and catch up on gossip.
In the Job Centre Joe waited in the short queue at reception. A woman scarcely looked away from her screen. ‘Yes?’
He held out his warrant card. ‘I’d like to speak to a manager.’
‘Oh.’ She scurried off. Joe looked around and thought the place was depressing. Lots of grey people. An overweight man studied one of the computer screens and walked out, apparently disappointed, letting the door slam behind him.
A woman with a baby in a buggy was having an argument with a member of staff. ‘So what am I supposed to do about childcare?’
‘I’m sorry.’ The officer was young and seemed close to tears. ‘I don’t make the rules.’
Not much of the joys of spring here.
A middle-aged woman appeared through the door that saidStaff Only. ‘Come through.’ Brusque, no wasted words. Well-cut hair, a black pencil skirt and black jacket. A woman with ambition. She led him through a large open-plan office and into an interview room. ‘How can I help?’ The tone of her voice made it clear that her time was precious.
‘I wonder if you can tell me who this man is?’ He laid the photograph of the grey man on the desk in front of her.
He was so certain that the grey man had been a colleague that he expected an immediate response. But her only response was a question. ‘Why do you want to know?’
‘We suspect that he might have been the victim of an incident last night, and we need to inform his family.’Incident, he thought.A useful catch-all word.
‘I don’t recognize him.’ The woman was staring at the photo. ‘But I don’t spend much time on the floor. You’d need to ask the customer-service staff.’
‘He doesn’t work here?’
‘Oh no!’ As if it were impossible that someone working in the Job Centre could be involved in any sort of incident at all.
Downstairs the war of attrition between the young officer and the single mother was continuing, though it seemed to be reaching a climax. ‘I can’t be doing with all this now, you stupid cow – I need to get the bairn to the health visitor, or they’ll have the social onto me for neglect.’ The mother was screaming at the top of her voice, her face red with anger and embarrassment. Suddenly she stood up and walked out.
In the room there was no reaction at all, except for a small sigh of relief from the young officer. Joe approached her. ‘Is it always like that?’
‘Nah,’ the woman grinned. ‘This is one of the quiet days. And to think I joined up because I thought I could make a difference.’
He introduced himself and then held out the photograph. ‘Do you recognize this man? He was in yesterday lunchtime.’
‘That’s Martin Benton.’ She didn’t have any curiosity at all about why Joe would want to know. ‘He’s just been assessed as fit to work, after a long time on invalidity benefit. We’ve been helping him back to the job market.’
‘He had an appointment with you yesterday?’
‘Yes, the initial interview, so I could explain the process and the responsibilities of the jobseeker. But when he came in he’d already decided to take the self-employment route.’
‘Did he say what work he intended to do?’
‘I don’t think so, and really it wasn’t relevant for our purposes. He’d decided not to claim benefit. That was all we needed to know.’
‘But you’ll still hold all his details. His address and previous work record.’
‘I’m not sure I can give you that information. Data protection.’ The room was quiet now and the sun was streaming through the windows, making it feel very hot.
‘Well, I can get a warrant of course, but your supervisor said you’d be able to help.’ Joe nodded towards the door that saidStaff Only.He thought the people upstairs in the open-plan office had it easy.
The young woman shrugged, tapped a few keys and hit the print button. ‘I’m leaving anyway,’ she said. ‘So sod it – it’s their responsibility. I’m going back to uni to do a social-work course.’
‘This’ll be good practice.’
‘Aye,’ she said. ‘That’s what I thought.’
She held out two printed sheets.
In the cafe on the square Joe drank milky coffee and read the life history of Martin Benton. The facts, at least. It seemed to Joe that there was little here to bring the man back to life. He’d been forty-eight when he died and he lived in a suburb of Kimmerston. He’d gained eight GCSEs at reasonable grades and three A levels, then got a degree in maths from Northumbria University. He’d done a postgraduate teaching year and had worked in a number of local high schools for fifteen years. There was no explanation for his decision to leave teaching. His most recent employment had been three years before, when he’d worked as an admin officer for a small charity. After that he’d been registered for invalidity benefit until, under the new regime, he’d been assessed as fit for work.
There were some gaps in Benton’s employment record: a couple between teaching posts, and a longer spell before he began work for the charity. If he’d been a different kind of man, Joe would have suspected criminal activity. Spent spells in prison wouldn’t necessarily have to be declared. His record could be checked, but it seemed unlikely. Qualified maths teachers didn’t usually become petty criminals.
There were no details of Benton’s family history. Joe found himself hoping that in the house in Laurel Avenue there would be a wife waiting for him – that the grey man hadn’t been a loner. He pictured someone soft and comfortable, with an easy smile, and began to imagine reasons why she might not have reported her husband missing the night before. Then he told himself that such speculation was ridiculous and he should check out the address to see.
Laurel Avenue was a quiet terrace on a hill on the edge of the town. Neat little Edwardian houses with identical porches, and a footpath that separated the homes from tiny gardens. At the back, yards and a narrow street for cars and bins. Joe preferred new houses that took no maintenance, but he could see the attraction of living here. The kids could play out, because there was no traffic at the front, and there was a view of the hills. It felt as if you could be in a village. Some of the gardens were planted with raised beds of salad leaves, wigwams for runner beans, but number twelve held the traditional square of grass with flowerbeds round the edges. The lawn could have done with a cut, but the place wasn’t overgrown or neglected. At the bottom of the garden stood a square plywood box that, from a distance, Joe took to be a hutch for a small pet. Curiosity took him over the grass to look, but there was no animal inside; instead an aluminium funnel and a large bulb. Joe was none the wiser.
There were three steps up to the front door. He rang the bell and waited. Pressed it again and listened to make sure that it was working. No response. Perhaps the comfortable wife of his imagination was out at work.
He was thinking he’d go round to the back and see if he could find a way in, without breaking a window, when a neighbour appeared. Elderly, plump. White hair in tight curls. She looked like Benton’s imaginary wife, but thirty years older.
‘Martin’s not in.’
Joe stepped over the low wall that separated her front step from number twelve. ‘Has he got any family?’
‘Who wants to know?’ She gave him a lovely smile, but her words were sharp.
‘Come in then, and we can talk. They’re a nebby lot round here.’ Another smile. ‘As you can see. I’m Kitty Richardson.’
Inside the place was polished. Every surface in the small living room gleamed in the sun that came through the bay window and smelled of lavender. In a corner a yellow budgie sat on a perch in a cage on a stand. Joe thought little had been changed since the house was built.
‘You’ve been here a while?’
‘Since we were first married.’ She settled on a high-backed chair facing the television and nodded for him to take the sofa. ‘My Arthur passed away on my seventieth birthday, but I stayed on. No point moving when my friends are all here.’ She nodded towards the partition wall that separated her house from Benton’s. ‘Elsie was like a sister to me.’ A pause, then a confession. ‘When she went, I missed her more than I did Arthur.’
‘And Elsie was?’ The reflected light was making him blink.
‘Martin’s mam, of course.’
‘Did he always live with his mother?’
‘On and off.’ She looked up at him. ‘He was never a strong man. Always had trouble with his nerves.’ There was a moment’s silence. The budgie squawked. ‘What’s he done?’
‘Nothing.’ Joe hesitated and then thought that the news would get out soon enough. ‘Martin’s dead. He died in suspicious circumstances. I need to notify his next of kin. And get into the house, if I can.’
‘Did he kill himself?’
Joe thought of the body that had been lying on the polished wooden floor in the attic of the big house. The slashes of the knife ripping at the shirt, and through the skin and bone. That certainly hadn’t been the result of suicide. ‘No!’
‘It wouldn’t have been surprising,’ Kitty said. ‘Elsie didn’t go into details, but I think he tried. Once or twice.’ She paused. ‘I don’t know about next of kin. His father died just before Elsie. There weren’t any other children.’ She looked up. ‘Sad, isn’t it? I can’t think of any relative who might be interested.’
‘Can you tell me about him?’ A Vera question, open-ended.
‘He was one of those quiet, sickly bairns. I was a nursery nurse before I married and I knew the sort. Given to asthma and feeling sorry for himself. It didn’t help that he was an only child and his mother loved the bones of him.’ She hesitated and Joe knew better than to jump in with another question. ‘He’s always been a loner. Never had a woman, as far as I know.’ A pause, a sly look and a grin to show how enlightened she was. ‘Or a man. He was canny enough, though. Kind. He took other people’s problems to heart. He was at the front door every five minutes collecting for some charity or other.’
‘Where did he live when he wasn’t at home?’
‘I believe he got himself a flat in Newcastle when he did his teacher training. I thought it would be the making of him. He’d have pals from the college and he might meet a nice lass. But it didn’t last and he was soon home.’
‘He was a teacher?’
‘Elsie’s idea. Her man had been down the pit and she didn’t want manual work for her boy. I never thought he’d have the constitution for teaching, though, not with the way bairns are these days.’
‘And he went along with the idea?’ Joe couldn’t imagine his children doing anything he suggested without a battle.
Kitty shot him a glance. ‘That was part of his problem. He’d never been brought up to think for himself.’
‘But he stuck at teaching for quite a long time.’
‘Aye, but the stress of it was killing him and he moved around a lot. Every time he changed jobs his mother had an excuse: the head teacher didn’t like him, or they were a cliquey bunch in the staffroom. Nothing was ever Martin’s fault. Truth was he just didn’t have the personality to control the classes.’ She sighed. ‘One of my pals had a grandson in his class. Apparently it was a riot. But they’re short of qualified maths teachers, aren’t they, so he always seemed to get a job. He never learned to drive, but he had a bike and he got to work on that.’ She paused.
‘Did he still have a bike?’ Joe was wondering if that was how he’d got to Gilswick the day before. It’d be quite a stretch, but not impossible if you were used to riding long distances.’
‘He did. He went out on it yesterday, early afternoon, and he never came back.’ She looked guilty. ‘That’s why I was looking out when you turned up. I was wondering if I should tell someone he wasn’t home. But why would anyone be worried? A grown-up man.’ Another pause. ‘But Elsie would have been worried. She’d have had the police out as soon as it got dark.’ A young woman pushing a buggy walked past the window and Kitty waved as if they were old friends.
‘You said Martin lived at home “on and off”. What did you mean by that?’
She looked awkward. ‘He spent a bit of time in hospital. St David’s. You must know it.’
St David’s. The psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Kimmerston. The name still spoken in a hushed tone. When Joe had been growing up it had been a place of legend. The ogre’s castle. ‘If you don’t stop playing up, Joe Ashworth, you’ll end up in St Davey’s.’ He nodded.
Kitty went on. ‘I don’t think he minded it so much in there, and it gave his mam a break, whatever she said. They gave him pills and they seemed to work for a while, but then he’d get poorly again. Depressed. Maybe he stopped taking the medication. I don’t think it helped him being next door with Elsie fussing all over him, treating him like a bairn. She liked it when he was off sick from work. He was company for her. I said so a few times, but she didn’t like me interfering and I decided it wasn’t worth falling out over.’
‘How did Martin get on after his mother died?’ Joe wondered what that must be like: to be sheltered and pampered and then find yourself alone, with the freedom to make decisions for yourself. It’d surely blow the mind even of a sane man.
‘He had a bit of a breakdown,’ Kitty said, ‘and ended up in hospital again. I think he realized he was ill and took himself off to the doctor. Since he’s been back he’s seemed better than I’ve known him for years. He gets a bit of company from some lad that visits every couple of weeks.’ She broke off. ‘I suppose he’s the closest Martin had to a friend – you’ll need to tell him.’
‘Who was he, the visitor? A community psychiatric nurse?’
Kitty shook her head. ‘Martin had one of those when he first came out of hospital. A lass. Didn’t look much like a nurse to me. Fishnet tights and a skirt that barely covered her behind. Enough to give a healthy man palpitations.’
‘So who was the lad?’ Joe was starting to feel that he was losing the plot.
‘Name of Frank. Maybe he was a teacher with Martin, though he didn’t look like a teacher. Big lad. Tattoos. Or perhaps they met in hospital.’
‘Do you have a second name for him?’
Kitty shook her head.
‘According to the Job Centre, Martin was planning to become self-employed rather than go on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Any idea what that was about?’ Joe thought maybe Benton had set up as a private tutor. There was plenty of call for people to give a bit of extra coaching, especially in maths. And surely it’d be easier to deal with one child than a rowdy classroom. But why would that have taken him to the big house at Gilswick? There were no kids there.
‘I never really talked to him once Elsie died,’ Kitty said. ‘He was always pleasant enough. Took in my parcels if I missed the postman. A good neighbour. But if he confided in anyone, it wasn’t me.’ She paused. ‘He wouldn’t have been completely without money, if they stopped his benefit. Elsie and him never spent much at all, and his father left him a little nest egg. But maybe he felt he wanted to do his own thing – after years of trying to please his mother, maybe he wanted a bit of independence.’
Kitty gave Joe a key to the back door of Benton’s house. She’d had it since Elsie had died. Joe stood in the Benton yard and phoned Vera. ‘What do you want me to do?’
There was a pause. ‘Well, it’s not a murder scene, is it? We know Benton was killed in the flat at Gilswick Hall. We’ll get the CSIs into his house as soon as they can make it, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to have a look first. I just need something to link Benton to Randle, and we’ve got bugger-all at the moment.’
He waited before opening the door and took time to look around the yard. A washing line with a shirt and a pair of socks dangling in the sunshine. Did that mean Benton was planning to come back the night before, to take them in? Joe had never done his own washing, but Sal would never leave laundry out overnight. A shed, very tidy. Tools hanging on nails, a stepladder. In the yard a couple of pots with daffs, dying now.
Joe unlocked the door and stepped into a back kitchen. And back into time and his nana’s house. A sink and a twin-tub washing machine. Then a step into the kitchen proper. If Benton had been pampered by his mother, there was no sign here that he hadn’t been able to care for himself. No dirty pots. The small gas cooker was so clean that it shone, and a tea towel had been folded on the rail. He opened the elderly fridge to find a carton of milk, four eggs and a supermarket packet of bacon. Then a row of small jars. All clean and all empty. Joe stared at them for a moment, but couldn’t think what they might be for. The house was long and narrow and seemed squashed by the houses on either side. At this point the only light came from the small scullery window.
He walked through to a dining room, gloomy and stale. Joe wanted to open a window and let in some air. A dark wood table and four matching chairs and a sideboard. Clean enough, but dusty. There was a gas fire in a tiled surround that looked so old Joe wouldn’t have wanted to try lighting it. None of the rooms had central heating. He thought that this room hadn’t been used since Elsie had died. Maybe not even before that.
Opening the door to the small living room, Joe blinked because of the sudden light. The sun flooded in, as it had in Kitty’s house. No sofa, but two chairs covered in a shiny floral pattern facing a large TV. Nothing unusual. Nothing to add character to the man who’d spent his life here. Had it been as if he was a lodger in his mother’s house, frightened of upsetting her, of disturbing the family home?
Upstairs. The door ahead of Joe opened into a bathroom. Deep enamel bath, stained and chipped. No shower. To the left, a separate lavatory. There were three small bedrooms. The largest held a double bed, pink candlewick quilt and the smell of old woman. Talcum powder and lavender, on top of something less pleasant. And next to the bed therewasstill a commode with a social-services stamp on the back. Joe shut the door quickly. Let the CSIs check in there.
It seemed that Martin Benton had taken the other bedrooms for his use. The smaller one was just big enough for a single bed, small wardrobe and chest of drawers. The bed was made. Sheets and blankets, army-style. The clothes in the chest and the wardrobe were mass-produced. What struck Joe as strange was that they were all very similar. Jogging bottoms, all black. Polo shirts. Two grey fleeces. Two pairs of trousers of the sort that old men wear to work and a few folded shirts, all white. It seemed that Benton had only possessed one suit and he’d been wearing it when he died. Why had he been wearing his suit for his trip to Gilswick? It suggested something formal. An interview? Had there been a parent in Gilswick village, wanting him to tutor a child? That still couldn’t explain his presence in the valley. And would Benton really have cycled all the way from Kimmerston to Gilswick in his suit? Joe thought they still needed to find out how he’d made his way to the big house.
The second room looked out over the yard and was a revelation. It was kitted out like an office: a large desk against one wall, one main computer and a laptop. Next to the window was a filing cabinet and on a shelf above the desk a row of reference books and academic textbooks, all related not to maths, but to natural history. The impression was more of a gallery than an office. The walls were white and hung with photographs. Beautiful photographs of butterflies, moths and other insects, all blown up so that every detail could be seen. Joe’s attention was caught by a picture of a caterpillar on a laurel leaf. Every vein on the leaf was sharp and clear. There was a raindrop, a shimmering prism like a tear. It seemed to Joe that if Benton had intended to set up his own business, it would surely have been as a photographer. A camera that Joe guessed had taken up six months’ invalidity benefit was hidden in one of the filing-cabinet drawers.
If Benton had been in Gilswick to take photographs of the house or the gardens, why hadn’t he taken his camera?
The camera was in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet; the other two drawers were conventionally arranged. Each drop-file was neatly labelled with a letter of the alphabet, but all of them were empty. Joe suddenly felt a wave of depression. He imagined Benton preparing his office for business, excited perhaps; but he had been killed before he could start out. If he’d gone to the big house for work, it must have been the first contract of his self-employment and might have marked a turning point in his life. Joe checked the desk for a mobile phone. There was nothing. The landline phone was in the hall downstairs. No messages. He dialled 1471 and a disembodied voice gave him a mobile number. He made a note of it and then went outside into the sunshine, closing the door carefully behind him.
Kitty was still sitting in her bay window. He tapped on her door and she answered at once.
‘Do you know what that contraption is, at the bottom of Martin’s garden?’
‘Oh, aye,’ she said. ‘That’s his moth trap.’Chapter Nine
When Holly got back from the post-mortem, Vera left her in the police station and headed out to Gilswick. She knew that was the wrong way round, and that she should be the person coordinating the action from a desk while her subordinate should be doing the legwork. But it was spring and being the boss should carry some perks. With the first real sunshine of the year, she couldn’t bear to be inside. She’d parked outside the big house and was watching the search team walking through the woodland between the road and the manor when Joe phoned to say that he’d got a name for the grey man. Martin Benton. An anonymous kind of name for an anonymous man.
She ended the call, waited for a moment and then started the car. It was time to get to know the other residents of the valley. The lane wound past Percy Douglas’s bungalow and ended in a small development. Three houses converted from a farmhouse and two barns. Vera supposed that the buildings had once been a part of the Carswell estate. All over the county farm tenancies were being relinquished and buildings converted to residential use. It was hard to make a living in the hills.
All the houses faced into a paved square, which had probably once been the farmyard. The stone farmhouse had a small front garden, with more land at the back; the barn conversions led straight onto the yard. Fancy cars were parked outside each of them. There was a view of the valley and the hills beyond. It would be as exposed as Vera’s place in the winter and she wondered how all the glass in the barns stood up to the weather. Would you get a window cleaner to come all the way out here? She thought someone must have seen her car coming along the track, and she stayed in the Land Rover for a moment. There were three households here and she needed to speak to the most inquisitive resident. She didn’t have to wait for long.
The door of the farmhouse opened and a squat man appeared. Late fifties or early sixties. A bit of a beer belly and a rolling gait that made her think of a sailor. He came up to her and she opened the car door to greet him.
‘Can I help you?’ A southern English voice. Not posh. Jovial enough, but making it plain all the same that she’d strayed onto private property.
She smiled. ‘I hope so, pet. I’m after information.’ Laying on the accent, because she’d taken an irrational dislike to him and wanted to mark this out as her territory, not his. She climbed out of the vehicle. ‘Inspector Vera Stanhope. Northumbria Police.’
‘Ah, we saw all the activity at the Hall.’ His manner had changed from suspicion to interest. He’d be one of those ghouls who’d want all the details of the killings. He held out his hand. ‘Nigel Lucas.’
‘You’ll have heard rumours, no doubt.’
‘Well, we got a phone call from Susan Savage, old Percy’s daughter, last night and she said that the Carswells’ house-sitter had been found dead in the ditch. I must admit we went upstairs to look at what was going on down by the burn.’ Vera wanted to slap him. And remind him that the lad had a mother who was grieving for him.
‘I’ve got a few questions,’ she said. ‘Can I come in?’
‘Of course, Inspector.’
The interior of the house had been torn apart and rebuilt. Once there would have been small rooms, easy to heat. Now there was one L-shaped open-plan space. The door opened into one of those kitchens that you’d be scared to cook or eat in. All granite and stainless steel, more laboratory than home. Vera found herself wondering where they kept their boots and the vacuum cleaner. There must be hidden storage space and she was distracted, looking for where it might be. But Lucas was leading her on through an arch into a living space, the width of the house, where the original flagstone floor was scattered with rugs. The walls were eggshell blue and covered with paintings. Watercolours. Vera recognized some of the scenes as local. There was a giant television screen, a glass coffee table and two white leather sofas. Not much else. She sat on one of the sofas and hoped she wouldn’t leave a mark from her greasy coat when she stood up. Or at least that nobody would notice.
‘Can I get you something to drink, Inspector?’
‘I’m on duty.’ She wondered why she couldn’t be more gracious, why she found the man so intensely irritating.
He gave a little laugh. ‘I wasn’t thinking of alcohol. It’s not quite wine o’clock, even in the Lucas household. And we had a bit of a session here last night. But I could do you a coffee.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘That would be lovely.’
The man shouted up the polished wooden stairs that twisted from a corner of the room. ‘Lorraine, we’ve got a guest. Are you ready for a break?’
There was a muffled reply.
‘My wife,’ he said. ‘She took up watercolours again when we retired, and she’s ever so good – she did all these . . .’ He nodded at the walls. ‘But she usually takes a breather at about this time.’ He sounded very proud of his wife, and for the first time Vera felt herself soften.Good God, woman, don’t despise the man because of the way he’s decorated his house. You’re turning into a snob, like your father.Hector was always sneering about the nouveaux riches who bought property in the country without understanding its ways.
Lorraine turned out to be slender and pale, with high cheekbones and hair that was almost white. Vera thought she was younger than her husband by at least ten years. She wore jeans and sandals and a loose silk top. Was that the style they called hippy-chic? Silver earrings. Make-up. Vera wondered if she was on her way out to a special lunch or if she always made the effort. It was clear that her husband doted on her. Vera thought for a moment thatshemight have found a man if she’d scrubbed up a bit better, then decided that no man was worth the time it took to plaster stuff on your face in the morning, when you could have an extra cup of tea instead.
‘How can we help you, Inspector?’ Lorraine had the same accent as the husband, but gentler. He’d disappeared into the kitchen and there was the sound of grinding beans, cups being put onto a tray. A performance for the audience on the leather sofa.
‘Patrick Randle . . .’ Vera looked at her and waited. No response. ‘He was house-sitting for the Carswells.’
‘Ah yes.’ A small frown to indicate sympathy. ‘Susan said there’d been an accident and that he was dead. Terrible.’
‘Someone killed him. Hit him over the head with a blunt instrument.’
Lorraine looked horrified. Vera thought she was upset not so much by the young man’s murder as by the fact that Vera had been so forthright.
‘Percy found him in the ditch by the lane,’ Vera went on, ‘and then there was another body in the attic flat in the big house. A middle-aged man named Martin Benton. Ring any bells?’
Lorraine shook her head slowly. ‘We moved here to escape all that. Robberies. Violence. We spent all our lives in the city, and when we retired we thought: “Why not live the dream?” We’d been to Northumberland on holiday. We put in an offer on this place online. We hadn’t even seen it then.’
Vera was tempted to say that they’d have been unlikely to come across a double-murder even in the city, but decided that wouldn’t help. ‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Two years. It’s taken us this long to get it as we want it. Nigel project-managed it all himself. He had his own business, with offices all over the South. Lucas Security. You’ve probably heard of it. He’s used to running a big show, so this was a doddle.’
So he got craftspeople in and bossed them around.‘And you don’t get bored?’
Nigel walked in then, carrying a tray with a coffee pot, a milk jug and a plate of home-made biscuits.You must be bored, pet. Someone like you doesn’t bake biscuits unless you need to fill your day.
Lorraine was about to answer, but Nigel got in first. ‘We don’t have time to be bored, Inspector. There’s something going on in the valley every day. Life’s one big impromptu party, here in the farm conversions. One of our neighbours calls us “the retired hedonists’ club”. We all took early retirement. Kids flown the nest. Those of us who had kids . . . We all have reasonable occupational or private pensions. This is the time of life when we can enjoy ourselves.’
Lorraine had been staring out of the window, but looked back into the room. ‘Perhaps we shouldn’t speak like that, Nige. Not when there’s been a murder.’ She paused. ‘Two murders. The inspector says they found another body in the house-sitter’s flat.’
There was a moment of silence. Vera thought they were trying to find a suitable response. Something tasteful, after Nigel’s boast of indulgent pleasures. She almost felt sorry for them.
‘The man in the big house was middle-aged,’ she said. ‘Grey hair. Glasses. His name was Martin Benton. Does that mean anything to you?’
Again it was Nigel who answered. ‘We don’t mix much with the Carswells. I mean, they’re pleasant enough when we meet them in the lane. But they’re almost aristocracy, aren’t they? Their family has had that place for generations. We might have got them out of a fix financially by buying the farmhouse, but they’re not going to ask us down to the Hall for dinner.’ There was a brief hint of resentment and then he smiled again.
‘I don’t think Mr Benton was a friend of the family, either,’ Vera said. ‘You didn’t see anyone of that description in the lane yesterday?’
‘No.’ Lorraine had the coffee cup poised between the tray and her mouth. ‘But we probably wouldn’t. He wouldn’t come past here to get to the Hall.’
‘Where were you yesterday afternoon?’
They looked at each other. ‘I went into Kimmerston to do some shopping,’ Nigel said. ‘Stocking up. It doesn’t do to run out of milk all the way out here.’ As if he lived in a remote community halfway up the Amazon.
‘And you, Mrs Lucas?’
‘I was here,’ she said.
‘In the house?’ Vera was about to ask if there’d been any phone calls to the landline, any visitors to corroborate the story.
‘No. Outside. The garden at the back leads onto the hill. I was sketching the view across the valley.’
‘So you’d have seen anyone driving up the lane? Or out walking?’
‘I suppose so.’ Though she seemed uncertain. Everything about her seemed a little unfocused. Vera wondered if she had a hangover, or if she was taking prescription drugs. ‘I get lost in my work.’
‘Well, did you see anyone at all?’ She tried to keep the impatience from her voice.
There was a beat of hesitation, the little frown again. ‘No. No, I don’t think I did.’
Vera got to her feet. ‘One of my colleagues will be along later today to take a statement. If you can remember anything else – even if it seems to have no importance at all – please let us know.’
They walked out through the grand kitchen and Vera paused there for a moment. ‘Your neighbours, the other members of “the retired hedonists’ club”. What can you tell me about them?’
Nigel rubbed his hands together. Vera wondered if he was real. Surely there was more to the man than this caricature who seemed to have stepped out of a 1970s sitcom.
‘The O’Kanes are in the house to our right. John’s a retired academic, a history professor. She was a kind of social worker. Divorce-court mediation – something of the sort. You know the type.Guardianreaders. They keep hens. She’s a veggie.’ As if there was nothing more for Vera to know. He paused for a moment. ‘Lovely people, though.’
‘And the house on the left?’
‘Annie and Sam. They ran their own business in Kimmerston, before they sold up and moved out here. They’re local. Know everyone in a ten-mile radius of Gilswick. Great if you need a plumber in a hurry.’ Another pause. ‘Salt-of-the-earth.’
Outside, Vera sat in the car to phone Joe and Holly and catch up on their news. She was aware of Nigel and Lorraine Lucas staring at her through their huge picture window.Chapter Ten
Annie Redhead was making biscuits. A fat woman in a dreadful coat had just come out of the Lucas house and was sitting in her car making a phone call. Annie wondered if she had anything to do with the death of the Randle boy. Surely she must do. Could she be a reporter? They’d been bothered by the press a few times after Lizzie was sent away.
The biscuits were made with dried ginger and golden syrup and the kitchen was full of the smell of them. She lifted a tray out of the cooker and prised each biscuit onto a wire tray to cool and harden. She and Sam couldn’t possibly eat them all and she’d give most of them away to the neighbours, but baking reminded her of the old life, before they’d come back to Gilswick. When they’d run the restaurant, she’d made tiny pieces of shortbread or brownie to go with after-dinner coffee. Otherwise Sam had never allowed her into his kitchen.
There was a sound of an engine. She looked out of the window again, but the woman was still there, still talking into her phone. The sound was made by Sam’s car turning into the yard. Every morning he went down to the village to soak up the news and collect his paper, and now he was back. He must have seen the stranger, but he didn’t acknowledge her. He’d never been one for confrontation. That was why they were living here, miles from anywhere, and why Annie was making biscuits for entertainment.
The door opened and Sam walked in as if he didn’t really have the right to take up the space. The way he always walked into a room. She stooped to put another baking tray into the oven and felt the strain on her hip as she stood up. She should lose some weight. If it came to it and she needed a hip replacement, it wouldn’t do to be carrying all this fat. ‘All right?’
He smiled. ‘I met Gordon in the shop. He sent his love.’
‘That’s nice.’ Gordon had been the postman when they’d first married and lived in the valley the first time. He’d seemed ancient even then and it was hard to believe that he was still alive.
‘Percy was there.’
She looked up sharply. ‘Any more news about what’s been going on at the Hall?’
‘Perce reckons there are two people dead. The lad that he found in the ditch and another in the house.’
‘Not the major? Or Mrs C?’
Sam shook his head. ‘Can’t be, can it? They’re visiting their boy in Australia.’ He folded his newspaper on the table so that he could read it. He did the same every morning, and Annie switched on the kettle for tea. That was their ritual. Tea and the crossword.
Sam looked up. ‘Who’s in that car in the yard?’
‘I don’t know. She’s been in next door.’
And that was when the doorbell rang and, glancing through the window, she saw that the fat woman was standing on their step.
Annie went to open the door. She thought again that she’d always done the front-of-house. That had never been Sam’s style and she was quite surprised to see him, still in his seat, when she led the strange woman into the kitchen. She’d almost expected him to have scuttled upstairs.
‘Eh, this is a lovely house.’ The woman was even bigger than Annie. She stood in the middle of the kitchen and, unlike Sam, seemed to expand to fit the room, to suck all the extra space into her body. ‘Cosier than that great palace next door. I’m Vera Stanhope. Northumbria Police. You’ll likely have been expecting me.’
‘Aren’t you Hector’s daughter?’
The women turned to look at Sam. Clearly the question had surprised them both.
‘For my sins,’ Vera said. ‘Did you know him?’
‘Knew of him.’
‘He didn’t have many friends,’ the detective said. ‘Lots of acquaintances. Through his business. You weren’t one of those?’
Sam shook his head slowly.
‘That’s all right then.Theywere an unsavoury lot.’
Annie looked at them for some explanation, but none was forthcoming. She’d have to ask Sam later. She made tea and put some of the biscuits that had cooled onto a plate. Remembered just in time to take the others out of the oven.
‘So how can we help you?’ Annie realized that her voice was sharp, but she wanted this over. Vera Stanhope seemed to have no urgency, and Annie didn’t like having the detective in her house. It made her uneasy.
‘Two murders,’ Vera said. ‘Not what you’d expect in a place like this. A disturbing time. I’m sure you want to help.’ Then she fired a question at Sam. ‘What businesswereyou in then, before you retired?’
‘We had a little restaurant,’ he said. ‘On the square at Kimmerston.’
‘Annie’s!’ She beamed. ‘Of course. I ate there myself a couple of times. If there was a special occasion. You had a great reputation with the foodies.’
Annie found herself smiling. She knew this fat woman was trying to get her onside, but she couldn’t help herself. ‘That was Sam. He was the chef.’
Sam shrugged. ‘It’s all in the ingredients.’ Which is what he’d always said when he got a compliment for his cooking.
‘Why did you sell up?’ The detective again. As much tact as a tank.
Annie got in before Sam had to answer. ‘It’s a tough business,’ she said. ‘Long hours. We wanted some time for ourselves before we got too old.’
‘Very sensible,’ Vera said, though Annie couldn’t imaginethiswoman would ever retire. Vera paused for a moment to drink her tea. ‘Did you ever meet the dead lad? They called him Patrick Randle and he was the house-sitter at the Hall.’
‘I met him a couple of times,’ Sam said. He didn’t usually volunteer information and Annie thought he wasn’t as intimidated by the detective as she was. Perhaps that was because he’d known Vera’s dad. He was always more comfortable with folk who’d grown up in the hills. ‘In the post office in the village. We got talking. You know how it is, waiting in the queue.’
‘What was he like?’
‘Nice enough.’ A pause. ‘Canny.’
‘Eh, man, that doesn’t tell me anything. I’ve never met him and it’d help to have your opinion.’
Sam tried again. ‘Just the sort of lad the Carswells would ask to look after their house. Pleasant and polite. He could have been a friend of their son’s.’
‘Was he a friend of the son’s?’
‘Not as far as I know. But they could have mixed in the same circles. Posh school. University. You know.’
Vera nodded. ‘You got kids?’
‘A daughter,’ Annie said, not looking at Sam. ‘Lizzie. She’s working away at the moment.’
Annie felt Vera’s eyes on her. They seemed to bore through her skull and into her brain and her memory. Annie held her breath, expecting more questions about Lizzie, knowing that she’d find it impossible to lie to this woman again. Besides, the detective would be able to find out all about their daughter, if she really wanted to know.Lizzie, she thought as she had so many times before,where did we go wrong?
But the inspector had a different question. ‘This Patrick Randle, did you ever meet him, Annie?’
‘Not to speak to. I saw him a couple of times in the lane, walking the dogs.’
‘There was a second murder,’ Vera said. ‘A bit of a mystery. We can’t imagine what the victim was doing in the flat in the big house. His name’s Martin Benton, a middle-aged chap. Apparently he’d lived in Kimmerston all his life. Worked as a teacher most of the time. Single. Does that mean anything to you?’
Annie shot a look at Sam.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said, ‘but as I get older, names don’t mean so much.’
Vera barked, a sound that was a cough mixed with a laugh. ‘I’m just the same, pet. It’s a nightmare in my work. But have a think, will you? Ask around.’ She paused. ‘We’re wondering if Patrick Randle might have employed Benton in some capacity. It seems as if he’d just set up his own business. Any idea what that could be about?’
Annie shook her head. ‘Maybe the major wanted some work done in the house while they were away? Decorating or plumbing? So it wouldn’t disrupt the family too much when they came back.’
‘Aye, that makes sense.’ But Vera didn’t sound convinced and she changed tack. ‘I suppose all these buildings belonged to the big house at one time. When did the family sell up?’
‘Five years ago,’ Annie said. ‘About that time. After the financial crash things got difficult for the tenants. Some clung on longer than others. The major sold the barns to a developer, and he hung onto the place before doing the conversions. Maybe he had problems raising the capital. The Carswells kept the house where the Lucases live, and put that on the market at the same time as the barns went up for sale.’
‘So you bought your place from the builder, but the Lucases bought theirs straight from the family?’
‘That’s right.’ Annie thought there couldn’t be much wrong with the inspector’s memory because she wasn’t making any notes. Annie experienced the anger that lit a little fire in her brain every time she thought of their move to the valley.
‘Did you all arrive at the same time?’
‘More or less.’ Annie reached out and took another biscuit. She always ate when she was stressed. ‘Lorraine and Nigel camped out at The Lamb for a few months while their renovations were being done, but we were here within six months of each other.’
‘And you all get on.’ It wasn’t exactly a question.
‘We’ve got a lot in common,’ Annie said. ‘Similar sort of age and newly retired. We have different interests, of course. Janet’s into natural history and she’s the leading light in the Gilswick Walking Festival. Lorraine has her art. I volunteer a couple of days a week at the first school in the next village. Listen to the kids reading. We’re not in and out of each other’s houses all the time, but we socialize. Meet for drinks on a Friday night. It kind of brings a bit of structure to the week, now we’re not working.’ She bit her lip, realizing that she would never have dreamed up that idea for herself. It was probably something the Prof. had said and she was just repeating it like a parrot.
‘Good that you keep so busy. You wouldn’t think there was so much to do out here.’ Vera smiled. ‘Nice view, though.’
There was a moment of silence that lasted long enough to become awkward.
‘I have to ask what you were both doing yesterday,’ Vera said at last. She gave an apologetic smile. ‘I’m sure you understand. So where were you from early afternoon?’
‘Of course.’ Sam sounded very reasonable and Annie was proud of him. She knew he’d hate having this woman in their house as much as she did. ‘A tree came down at the end of the garden in the last storm and I was sawing it up. Logs for the wood-burner. We built a workshop at the back of the house when we first moved in and I was there all afternoon.’
‘And you?’ Vera turned to Annie, caught her in the process of nibbling another biscuit.
‘I was at the WI in the village.’ The crumbs made her throat feel very dry and it was hard for her to speak. ‘Janet O’Kane gave me a lift. There was a lecture on Neighbourhood Watch.’
Annie had the feeling the detective was making fun of her, but when she looked, Vera’s face gave nothing away.
‘The meeting started at two-thirty,’ Annie said, ‘and once we’d had tea and caught up with our friends, it was probably five o’clock by the time we got back here.’
‘Did you pass anyone on the lane?’ Vera’s voice was easy, almost uninterested, so Annie guessed this was an important question. ‘Anyone walking down the valley? Any parked cars?’
Annie shrugged. ‘We were talking,’ she said. ‘Gossiping, I suppose. I don’t think that I’d have noticed.’
‘You might have noticed if there was a vehicle coming in the opposite direction.’ Vera’s tone was sharper now. ‘There are hardly any passing places, and you’d have to back up.’
‘I don’t think we passed anyone,’ Annie said. ‘But I wasn’t driving. You’re probably best asking Janet. It might have registered with her.’
The detective levered herself to her feet. ‘You’re probably right,’ she said. She paused with her hands still on the table. ‘What was the gossip about?’
For a moment Annie’s mind went blank. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘other WI members. Committee politics. You know what it’s like when you get a bunch of women together.’
‘I’m not sure that I do, pet. Most of my colleagues are men, and I don’t really do girlie chats.’ She flashed another smile and made for the door. Annie followed her and showed her out.
Back in the kitchen, Sam was standing by the window looking out. ‘She’s still there, sitting in the car.’
Annie joined him. Vera Stanhope was leaning back in the driver’s seat and seemed to have her eyes shut. For a moment Annie wondered if she was ill, if she’d had a heart attack or a stroke. The woman was so big she’d be a candidate for a stroke. Then she shifted and seemed to be writing on a scrap of paper. So perhaps she did take notes after all.
‘Come away,’ she said to Sam. ‘We don’t want her to think that we’re bothered.’Chapter Eleven
Holly sat in the big open-plan office and let the buzz of phone conversations and chat fade into the background. The sunshine lay on her desk in stripes, filtered by the blinds at the big windows. She needed to concentrate. To her left she was vaguely aware of Charlie talking to a taxi company about any bookings they’d taken to Gilswick the day before, but in her head she was back in the mortuary with Paul Keating and Billy Cartwright. They were working on the second body, stripping the clothes away, a strange kind of ritual. Vera had already lost patience and disappeared. The care that was taken in the removal of the garments was almost loving and the voice describing the process into a recorder was rhythmic and gentle. Like a prayer. Keating was a religious man, and not even Billy Cartwright managed to be too flippant in his company.
Holly had held the bag while they slipped the victim’s shoes inside. Keating was still speaking. ‘A bit of mud and what might be gravel in the tread. It would be worth letting Lorna Dawson from the Hutton work her magic.’ Professor Lorna Dawson, Keating’s favourite forensic soil scientist, should be able to provide information about where their victim had been just before he was killed. Then the suit had been removed. Marks & Spencer. It looked timeless, but it might be possible to track down when it was bought from its style, small differences in stitching. It gave no sense of the personality of the man, except that he was someone who wouldn’t have wanted to stand out. Holly could see why Vera called him the ‘grey man’. There was nothing in the pockets, not even a tissue or loose change.
It was when they cut away the underwear that the thought had flashed into her mind. Subversive, an epiphany.I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to live in a northern city with people who despise me, helping strange middle-aged men undress the dead. I’m smart and young enough to make a change. I can do anything I want.And following on from the first flash of revelation:I don’t want to end up old and single and married to the job, like Vera Stanhope.So now Holly was sitting at her desk trying to recapture that moment of excitement and decision, that instant of courage. Her phone rang. Joe Ashworth.
‘I’ve got a name for the grey man. Can you find out everything you can about Martin Benton?’ Then Joe gave her a list of facts. The man’s age and address. His last known employment at a charity in a small town in south-eastern Northumberland. ‘I’m just going to check out his home. See if I can track down any relatives.’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘I can do that.’
Holly went to the office where Benton had last worked, without calling in advance. That wasn’t her usual style. Generally she was happier talking on the phone. She hated to think how much time Vera wasted, drinking tea and listening to idle chat that had no relevance to the inquiry. But today she wanted to be away from the station. She’d always been ambitious about work. Now the police station, with its banter and apparently meaningless routines, made her think those goals might be worthless. She was better away from the place for a couple of hours.
Martin Benton’s most recent workplace was in Bebington, a former mining town a few miles southeast of Kimmerston. Terraced streets scattered with ‘To let’ or ‘For sale’ signs. The main road a selection of charity shops, pawnbrokers and bookmakers. A convenience store with a handwritten notice in the window advertising cheap booze. Cheap spelled ‘cheep’. A million miles away from the valley at Gilswick, with its big house and primroses. Though hardly any distance at all, as the crow flew.
The charity where Benton had worked as an admin assistant was called Hope North-East and its base was a little house in a rundown street just off the main drag. The front door was open and she walked into a narrow lobby. To her right she looked through a glass door into a social space with a kitchen area beyond. There it seemed that a discussion group was taking place. Half a dozen people, mostly men, were sitting in a circle on beaten-up chairs. In the middle of them was a low table holding mugs. Nobody was smiling and the conversation seemed very intense.
Just inside the front door a laminated sheet of paper had been fixed to the wall with a drawing pin. It said ‘Office’ and an arrow pointed up the stairs. Holly followed it and came to an empty reception desk. She hesitated for a moment when somebody shouted from a room to the right. ‘Can I help you?’
Holly followed the voice into an untidy space. Two desks piled with files, a couple of computers that looked as if they’d been there for a decade. And two women, one large and confident, one skinny and nervous. A window looked out towards the main street and there was a background rumble of traffic.
Holly identified herself. The skinny woman looked even more nervous. Holly heard Vera’s voice in her head:You shouldn’t read anything into that, Hol. In some communities bairns are brought up to see the cops as the enemy. It doesn’t mean they’ve got anything to hide.
Still, Holly couldn’t help feeling suspicious. ‘Hope North-East. What’s that?’
‘We’re a registered charity,’ the skinny one said, too quickly. ‘We’re all above board here.’
Holly didn’t answer and turned to the larger woman. She had an official-looking name badge that read ‘Shirley’, and wore smart black trousers and a blue silk top. Holly thought she’d get more sense out of her.
‘We provide support and assistance for offenders newly released from prison or young-offender institute.’ The words came easily. Shirley had given the same explanation many times before. ‘We also give help to the offenders’ families.’
‘What kind of service do you provide?’ Holly felt more confident now. Shirley was a professional and she could relate to her. ‘Specifically.’
‘Sometimes all people need is information. If the wage earner suddenly disappears from the scene, partners flounder when it comes to applying for benefits. Just the business of organizing visiting orders and transport to the prison can be a nightmare. And you can find that your friends suddenly disappear, once a family member is sentenced. When offenders are first released, we try to provide friendship and company. Practical help with housing and money. In prison it’s easy, in lots of ways. The inmates get fed, clothed, and if they’re lucky they’re given work. When they first come out some people flounder.’
‘What’s going on downstairs?’ Holly thought the victims could do with a bit more support, and these do-gooders should direct their efforts in that direction.
‘A support group for people who have a problem with alcohol. The traditional AA approach doesn’t work for everyone. Our approach is a little less formal.’
‘Did a man called Martin Benton work for you?’ Holly took the photograph of the dead man and placed it on the desk in front of Shirley. The skinny woman stood up to look too, more curious now than worried.
‘What’s happened to him?’
Holly didn’t reply immediately. ‘You do recognize him?’
‘Yes,’ Shirley said. ‘That’s Martin.’
‘He died yesterday in suspicious circumstances.’ She thought the information would be all over the news by that evening, and besides you could tell from the photo that the man was no longer hale and hearty. ‘We’re trying to piece together as much information as we can about him. I understand that he worked here with you.’
There was a moment of shocked silence, before Shirley started speaking. ‘He came as a volunteer first. Then we put in a funding bid, so we could update our IT. When I first started, it was a nightmare. Everything on card indexes, no attempt at data protection. Martin applied for the admin post and got the job.’
‘Were there any problems?’
‘None at all. He was a dream employee.’
‘What do you mean?’ For the second time that day Holly found her attention wandering.I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to be in a scuzzy office in a scuzzy town asking questions about a man I don’t care about at all.
‘He was punctual, reliable and very effective. A whizz at anything to do with the computers. In the end he was helping the clients. He ran a series of workshops for us in the local library, showing people how to register online for work and for benefits. Lots of them don’t have computers at home.’
Automatically Holly took out her iPad and began to write notes.
‘How long did he work for you?’
‘He was here on a six-month contract,’ Shirley said. The skinny woman had moved back to her desk, but made no pretence of working and was listening to every word. ‘After that, our funding dried up and we couldn’t afford to keep him on. He still came in once a week to help out as a volunteer. I’m the only paid worker in the place, and I’m on the minimum wage.’
‘What’s your background?’
‘I did a social-work diploma and worked as a probation officer for twenty years,’ Shirley said. ‘But I didn’t fancy working for a company more interested in profit than in befriending clients, when the service was reorganized and put out to private tender. Here I’m doing what I’m good at.’
Downstairs the group seemed to be breaking up. There were shouts as people wandered out into the street. The buzz of more animated conversation in the room below.
‘Did you know that Martin collected moths?’ Holly wasn’t sure how that could be relevant to the man’s death, but Joe had made a big deal about it.
‘Sure. He was very quiet. Shy. But when he talked about moths he seemed to come alive. Moths and computers. The loves of his life.’ Shirley smiled.
‘There was nobody special then?’
‘He never mentioned anyone. But then he probably wouldn’t. As I said, he was very shy. Anyway, he found dealing with people tricky. Martin ran the taster computer sessions with clients because he knew they were useful, but he was happier tucked away here in the office.’
There were footsteps, heavy on the bare stairs, and a man stood just inside the office door. Middle-aged and enormous. Shaved head. Tattoos. Hands the size of shovels, with dirt ingrained under the fingernails. ‘This is Frank,’ Shirley said. ‘He’s just been running the group. Another of our regular helpers.’
They sat in the window of a cafe. Frank drank a double-espresso and asked for a Coke to go with it. Holly had tea, too strong for her taste. Frank did most of the talking, a continuous monologue fuelled by caffeine and sugar. ‘I’ve got an addictive personality. Better coffee than booze. That’s why I got into bother when I was a kid. I wasn’t into thieving because I needed stuff. It was the buzz, the excitement. Knowing that I might get caught.’
‘And you did get caught.’
‘Of course I did. I was stupid. Detention centre, young offenders, prison. I worked my way through them. Didn’t stop me stealing, though, and by then I’d found other stuff to give me a buzz. Heroin. I got into that inside. By that time I was needing to thieve to pay for it.’
‘But you’re straight now?’
‘Yeah. Clean and straight. I’ve got my own little business. Gardening. I was never going to be any good working indoors. And I help out at Hope when I can.’
Holly wasn’t sure how to react. She’d never been convinced that people changed so dramatically. ‘You got friendly with Martin Benton?’
‘He was a gentle soul, Martin. He needed someone to look out for him.’
‘You supported him when he came out of hospital after his mother died?’ Holly was still struggling to think of this man as a guardian angel.
‘Then, but also when the Job Centre got him assessed as fit for work. The stress of teaching had made him ill and he was still getting over the last breakdown. No way could he go back to that. So I suggested that he’d be better registering as self-employed. That gets the bastards off your back, you know. He was a clever guy. He had some savings in the bank to see him through until he got set up. And he had skills.’
‘Moths and computers.’
‘And photography! Have you seen inside his office? All those beautiful pictures. He just needed the confidence to go it alone.’ Frank drained the Coke and fidgeted in his seat.
‘What business did he decide on in the end?’
For the first time Frank seemed hesitant. ‘I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me. Not in detail. He’d met some guy who wanted him to do some work. He wouldn’t tell me any more than that.’ There was a pause. ‘I wondered if he was getting ill again. When he was really ill he heard voices, you know. Got paranoid. Dreamed up weird conspiracy theories. He said he’d been sworn to secrecy.’
‘And you thought he was psychotic?’ Holly decided that this was a nightmare. Vera would want facts, not news of a madman who heard voices.
‘I don’t know. I’m not qualified to tell. I’m not a doctor, am I? Martin seemed sane enough, but his stories didn’t hang together. Why would he turn setting up a new business into such a mystery?’ Frank was drumming his fingers on the table.
Holly saw that she wouldn’t keep him here for very much longer. ‘Can I get you another coffee?’
He shook his head. ‘I’ve got work.’
‘Can you tell me again what Martin said about his business? Where did he meet the man who offered him the work?’
Frank got to his feet, leaned over the table towards Holly. ‘He wouldn’t tell me. Nothing. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Frank, but I’m sworn to secrecy.” And his eyes were kind of glittery, so I wondered if he was on something.’ He looked directly at Holly. ‘Then he said that I’d be proud of him. “You, of all people, would understand.” I asked him what he meant, but he just smiled.’Chapter Twelve
Vera was hungry. Biscuits were all very well, but she hadn’t had a proper meal since the pizza the night before, and pizza never seemed very filling to her. More like a snack. She was thinking she might slide back to the village for pie and chips in The Lamb, when the door of the barn conversion on the other side of the farmhouse opened. The two Labradors she’d seen in the big house burst out, followed by a middle-aged woman. The woman was fit. Not an inch of spare flesh. She wore specs and had curly hair that looked like a Brillo pad. She wore wellingtons, jeans and a T-shirt. No coat or jersey.
‘Janet O’Kane?’ Vera was only halfway out of the car and had to shout above the sound of excited dogs.
‘Yes?’ The woman stopped, but the dogs bounded off.
‘Inspector Vera Stanhope. Have you got time for a chat?’
‘If you don’t mind a walk.’ She nodded after the Labradors. ‘They’re used to a big garden and they’re going stir-crazy in the house.’
‘It was good of you to take them on.’
‘I’m not sure what my husband makes of our new house-guests but, really, it was the least we could do. Two people dead! I can hardly believe it.’ She paused and they walked down the track for a little way. ‘I’m pleased that you can join me. I was a bit anxious about going out on my own, even with the dogs. Ridiculous, I know. John said he’d come, but he’s not been well and I could tell he’d rather not.’
She set off down the lane.
‘I’d usually go up onto the hill, but there are lambs, so it’s probably better to avoid there today. Wren’s very well behaved, but Dipper’s a bit of a bugger. He’s her son.’
It took Vera a moment to realize that she was talking about the dogs. ‘Do you look after them very often?’
‘If the Carswells are only away for a weekend I go down to the house a couple of times a day to feed them, let them out – you know. I’d love to have a dog of my own, but John’s not keen.’
‘It’s a lovely place to live,’ Vera said.
‘Isn’t it? John was an academic at Newcastle University and the plan was always to retire early and find somewhere with some space to breathe. Live the good life. Maybe it’s a bit daft, but it works for us.’ Her voice was very bright.
She took a footpath that led from the lane and onto a narrow bridge over the burn. The dogs nosed through the undergrowth. There were wood anemones, celandines and all around them birdsong. It occurred to Vera briefly that she should get out more, take a bit of exercise as the doctor had advised. At least it would stop Joe nagging, and she might even enjoy it. ‘How well do you know the Carswells?’
‘I met Helen when I was walking and she was out with the dogs. I didn’t realize who she was at first. Since then we’ve been down to the big house for drinks a few times, and John and Peter seem to get on very well. Both history geeks. Helen calls in for coffee if she’s walking our way. She’s a very sympathetic woman. I miss her company while she’s away.’
‘Very chummy.’ Vera wondered about that, if the close relationship between the O’Kanes and the people at the big house caused resentment among the other residents of Valley Farm. ‘And you get on well with your closer neighbours?’
There was a brief pause. ‘Oh, we do. We’re very lucky.’ She threw a stick and watched Dipper chase after it. ‘Sometimes I think this period of our lives is a kind of regression. We have no real responsibilities. The six of us at the farm are of an age when we should be caring for elderly parents or grandchildren, but coincidentally we’re all free of those ties. It feels a bit like being a student again. We have nobody to worry about except ourselves.’
‘The retired hedonists’ club.’ Vera was feeling a little breathless and wished the woman would slow down. She sat on a fallen tree and Janet came to join her.
‘Ah, somebody told you about that. John’s little joke. Though the pedant in me thinks it’s not quite right. It sounds as if we used to be hedonists and now we’ve stopped. In fact we’re hedonists who happen to be retired.’
‘And what form does the hedonism take?’ Vera had never been very good at grammar at school. Hadn’t seen the point, as long as you could make yourself understood, and now she was just confused.
‘Oh, nothing very dramatic! We don’t go in for orgies or hallucinogenic drugs. We probably drink too much. Eat too much. Enjoy each other’s company. Take the occasional trip into Newcastle or Kimmerston for the pictures or the theatre. A weekend away. Perhaps it’s not so much regression as a kind of desperation. We see time trickling by and want to enjoy life while we can.’ She stopped abruptly.
‘But the Carswells aren’t members?’ Vera remembered Nigel Lucas’s resentment when he spoke of the people in the big house.
‘Oh no!’ As if the idea was unthinkable. ‘And they do still have responsibilities. Peter’s chair of the Country Landowners’ Association and sits on lots of committees. Helen is something to do with the hospice in Kimmerston and a trustee of any number of charities. Annie and I are involved in the community too, but not to the same extent.’
‘The Carswells don’t have grandchildren?’ Vera remembered the photographs in the living room of the big house. No babies there.
‘Not yet! But there’s one on the way.’ Janet got to her feet. It seemed she was eager to continue with the walk. ‘That’s why they’re in Australia.’
Of course. Joe had provided that information.
‘What did your neighbours do before they retired?’ Vera knew she should move on to the detail, to questions more relevant to the investigation, but she’d always been a nosy cow.
‘Lorraine and Nigel Lucas? Nigel had his own business. He made a fortune when he sold it. Money’s definitely not a problem in that house. Lorraine was a teacher. Not in a school. She taught art to troubled youngsters and in prisons.’
Vera blinked and had to reassess her image of Lorraine Lucas. Vera had seen her as a trophy wife, attractive but with little personality. It was hard to imagine her dealing with young offenders. ‘They never lived locally before they retired?’ Vera tried to remember what the couple had told her. Joe had passed on the information that Martin Benton had worked for a charity that helped offenders and their families, and she was desperate to make connections.
‘I don’t think so. I’m sure they were based in the South. The Midlands somewhere, I think.’ She spoke as if the South was a mysterious place with ill-defined boundaries.
They began the walk back towards Valley Farm. Vera had to walk very fast to keep up. ‘Did you know Patrick Randle, the Carswells’ house-sitter?’
‘Well, I met him. Helen asked me to call in the day after he arrived, to make sure he was okay. Susan, their cleaner, was going to let Patrick in and show him the ropes, but Helen thought it would be nice if I dropped in, to welcome him to the valley. And introduce him to the dogs, of course.’
‘What did you make of him?’
‘He seemed very pleasant. Polite. Charming even. He took me up to the flat and made me tea. I said that he’d have to come to dinner one night, but we didn’t fix anything definite. I gave him our phone number in case he needed anything. That was all. I thought we’d have a couple of months to get to know him.’ Janet paused. ‘It’s still not really hit me that he’s dead.’
They climbed out on the lane, so now they could walk side by side.
‘The second victim was a man called Martin Benton,’ Vera said. ‘Did the Carswells mention anyone of that name to you?’
Janet shook her head.
‘He was found in the flat at the big house. Any reason for him being there? For example, were the Carswells planning to get any work done on the house while they were away?’
‘I don’t think so, and Susan would probably know more about that than me.’ They’d reached the houses and the dogs were chasing around the yard.
‘I’ve got a few more questions,’ Vera said.
There was a brief hesitation and Vera sensed something. Panic? Hostility? Then Janet smiled. ‘Of course. Come in. Meet John and have a coffee.’
They sat in a room at the back of the barn conversion. It seemed rather shadowy. There was a view of a long, narrow garden that ended with a drystone wall and then the open hill, but the sun was behind the house. John O’Kane was dark-haired and dark-eyed. Vera could see he would have been handsome when he was young, imagined him as a new lecturer, adored by his students. He was wearing cord trousers and a big sweater. He’d taken a chair in the window and had a box of tissues on the floor beside him. There was a bowl of boiled sweets on a table and he sucked them throughout the conversation. His words were interrupted by fits of coughing and sneezing. Vera thought he was one of those men who couldn’t be quietly ill. The room was a comfortable clutter of books and papers, quite different from the magazine-perfect style of the house next door. Vera wondered what the two couples could have in common, couldn’t quite imagine them sharing drinks on a Friday night and laughing at the same jokes.
‘Could you both tell me what you were doing yesterday afternoon and evening?’ She was sitting at a scrubbed pine table. There was a jam jar of daffodils, a seed catalogue and a scattering of the Sunday papers from a couple of days ago.
‘I was at WI in the afternoon,’ Janet said. ‘I went with Annie. Lorraine says it’s not really her thing, though I’m sure she’d enjoy it if she gave it a try. It’s not all jam and Jerusalem these days.’ She seemed aware that she was talking too much and her voice tailed off.
‘Mr O’Kane?’ Vera turned to the man.
‘I was here all afternoon.’
‘You didn’t go out at all?’
‘I’ve not been well.’ He sounded fractious, like a difficult child. ‘And besides, Janet’s the one who feels the need for fresh air. I was reading.’
‘John’s working on a book.’ The woman managed to sound proud and apologetic at the same time.
‘The history of the Border Reivers,’ he said. ‘My subject.’
‘Fascinating.’ Vera turned her attention back to Janet. ‘Did you notice anyone in the lane when you were driving back from the WI?’
‘I’ve been thinking about that, of course. Annie phoned to say you’d asked her. But no, I didn’t see anyone.’
‘Does the name Martin Benton mean anything to you, Mr O’Kane?’
‘Who’s he?’ The professor scowled.
Vera thought O’Kane had been pandered to throughout his career and couldn’t quite get used to being a retired old git without a secretary or fawning students. Then she decided she might be bored and demanding, if she’d just retired. ‘He’s the man who was found dead in the attic of the big house with multiple stab wounds to the chest.’
There was a pause. ‘No,’ the professor said at last. ‘I’ve never heard the name before.’
‘And later in the evening?’ Vera asked. ‘What did you do then?’
‘At about eight o’clock we went next door for drinks,’ John said. ‘Usually we only meet up on a Friday night. It’s something of a weekly ritual. Nigel prides himself on making the best G&T in the North, and I wouldn’t disagree. It marks the beginning of the weekend for us retired people who no longer work away from home during the week. Last night was a bit special, because it was midweek and Lorraine’s birthday.’
‘How did you get next door?’ Vera was starting to lose patience with him.
‘I might be ill, Inspector, but I was perfectly able to walk a few yards.’
‘Did you go this way, through the garden or through the front door?’ She found herself glaring at him. Something of his arrogance reminded her of her father, Hector.
Again there was a moment’s silence and this time Janet answered. ‘John was ready before me, and he went in by the front door. Our Friday socials are quite formal, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. We make an effort, dress up a bit. And we did exactly the same last night for Lorraine’s party. You know how it is.’ Vera didn’t and Janet continued. ‘We were going to eat next door too and I’d made a pudding, so I just went out the back way and let myself into Lorraine’s kitchen. I’d made a cheesecake and it needed to go in the fridge.’
‘Their back door wasn’t locked?’
‘No, none of us lock our doors during the day, if we’re in.’
‘Did either of you notice anything unusual while you were on the way to the farmhouse?’
‘If we’d seen a stranger brandishing a knife, I really think we might have mentioned it, Inspector.’ The professor again. His face seemed very red. Vera couldn’t tell if he really had a fever or if the questions were making him angry or anxious.
‘There might have been an incident that seemed insignificant at the time.’ Her voice was bland. ‘A car on the lane. A walker down by the burn. It would help if you could remember anything of that sort.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary at all.’
Janet took more time to consider. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘I was in the garden for a little while because I shut the hens away before going next door. We lock them up at night because of foxes, and I knew I wouldn’t want to do it later. I don’t remember seeing anyone on the hill. I’m sorry. I wish I could help.’
In the silence that followed Vera could hear the hens at the bottom of the garden. She thought they sounded like old women gossiping.That’s all I am. An old woman who gossips.She stood up and sensed the relief in the room. It was physical, like a smell.
John O’Kane gave her a little wave, but made no move to get to his feet. Janet walked with her to the door. ‘Call in again, Inspector. Any time.’ A polite formula that certainly wasn’t sincere.
Vera got into the car and drove down the lane. There were messages on her phone, but she didn’t want to read them until later. She thought all the residents of Valley Farm were watching to make sure that she’d driven away.Chapter Thirteen
When Vera arrived at The Lamb they’d already stopped serving food, but the landlady took pity on her. Vera found herself alone in the small bar with a plate of reheated shepherd’s pie. No alcohol. She needed a sharp brain. There were missed calls from Joe and Holly. She called Joe first.
‘What have you got for me?’ The words slurred because of the pie. The phone in one hand and a fork in the other.
‘I’ve found a connection between Benton and Randle.’ He sounded jubilant. She thought he’d been waiting for her call so that he could pass on the information.
‘You’d better explain, lad.’
‘Randle did ecology at university and his PhD was something about moths. I checked with his supervisor. I couldn’t quite grasp the detail. Something about moths being an indicator of global warming.’
‘And?’ The prompt was automatic. Her plate was empty and she pushed it away from her, took a scrap of paper and a pen from her jacket pocket.
‘Benton was into moths too. There was a trap in his garden in Kimmerston and his office was full of photographs. He might have been an amateur, but you could tell he knew what he was on about. The woman at the charity where he’d worked said he had two passions: computers and moths.’
‘Do we have a record of any communication between them? Phone calls? Emails?’ Vera was struggling to understand how an interest in Lepidoptera could lead to murder. Hector had never been into moths. His obsession had been for larger, more macho creatures: buzzards, peregrines, goshawks. She imagined moth-trapping as a gentler occupation, old-fashioned. The pastime of elderly clerics and schoolmasters. One of her father’s friends had been a collector. Like Hector, he’d seemed more interested in dead beasts than live ones, and there’d been drawers of insects pinned onto boards.
There was a sudden flash of memory. Vera and Hector had stayed with the collector one night in a house close to Kimmerston. The place hadn’t been as grand as Gilswick Hall, but had been large and shabby, surrounded by farmland. She remembered the mercury-vapour bulbs of the moth trap in the garden sending shafts of light into the sky, and the chug of the generator that powered them. Then, at dawn, examining the contents that had collected in the egg boxes at the base of the trap. The two men poring over them, excited as children taking part in a lucky dip. Later Hector had been dismissive: ‘There’s something distasteful about a grown man fiddling with the genitals of a small insect to make an identification.’ But at the time he’d been caught up in the excitement of discovery. Vera decided he just hadn’t had the patience for such detailed work.
Joe’s voice brought her back to the present with a start. ‘We haven’t found either of the phones yet. We’re trying to track down the service providers. Randle’s mother will have a number for him, but she’s on her way north and I don’t want to disturb her unless I have to. The last call to Benton’s landline was from a mobile number.’
‘What time are we expecting the mother?’
‘Holly’s meeting her train at Alnmouth at six. We’ve found accommodation for her at Kimmerston and we’ve arranged for her to see Patrick’s body first thing tomorrow.’
‘Tell Holly to take Mrs Randle out for a meal. I’ll join them if I can.’ Vera thought the last thing a recently bereaved woman would need would be to be alone all evening in a strange hotel. But perhaps making conversation to strangers would be even worse. ‘If she’d like to, of course. Give her the option. We can talk tomorrow, if she’d rather.’ She paused. ‘What about emails?’
‘The techies have got Martin Benton’s computer. Nothing yet, they say. He seems to have deleted all his communications as he went along. Almost as if he was paranoid about security. And Randle didn’t have a laptop in the flat. At least there wasn’t one there when the search team went in.’
‘Seems a bit odd.’ Vera thought that if Randle was planning to continue his academic research he’d want to keep up with the latest scientific publications. To write. Even if he’d had an iPhone for calls and emails, surely he’d need a computer too.
‘You think the murderer took his computer?’
‘Well, we’re assuming the same person killed both men, even though the cause of death was different, so we know they were in Randle’s flat.’ She felt suddenly tired. It was the food and the warmth.I’m not much younger than the folk at Valley Farm. They’ll be relaxing at home or pottering in their gardens. Perhaps I’m past my sell-by date.But she knew that was ridiculous as soon as the thought floated into her head. She was as sharp as ever. ‘I’ll be driving back to the office shortly. Let’s get together before Holly heads out for Patrick Randle’s mam. I want everything you can dig out on the three couples who live at that small development at the head of the valley. Sam and Annie Redhead. They used to have the classy restaurant on the square at Kimmerston, but they seem a bit young for retirement.’Younger than me?‘Find out why they sold up so suddenly. Nigel and Lorraine Lucas. They lived south, somewhere in the Midlands. He had his own security business and she was an art teacher. And Professor and Mrs O’Kane. He was a historian at Newcastle Uni and she was some kind of social worker. All ladies and gentlemen of leisure, but there’s a weird feel about the place.’ Vera tried to remember how Janet had described it. ‘A kind of desperation.’
Later they sat in her office drinking the lethal coffee that she’d brewed to keep her awake. In the open-plan room beyond the glass door there was a buzz that reminded her of the hens at Valley Farm. Muttered conversations on phones and the hum of the printers. Late-afternoon sun flooded through the windows. She perched on her desk so that she was looking down at Holly and Joe. ‘So,’ she said, ‘what can you tell me about our victims? Hol, you checked out Benton’s workplace. Any motive there?’
‘He seemed a gentle sort of guy.’ Holly was choosing her words carefully. She was always anxious about getting things wrong. A perfectionist. Better say nothing than make a mistake. ‘Nobody mentioned him losing his temper or annoying people in the office. He was negotiating his way through the benefits system, but he was luckier than most claimants moved from sickness benefit. He’d inherited the house from his mother, so there were no housing costs, no worries about the bedroom tax, and he had some savings. He’d been in and out of mental hospital, but once he’d given up teaching his health seems to have improved too.’
‘Apart from one episode immediately after the death of his mother,’ Joe said.
‘Yeah, apart from that.’ Holly was concentrating so hard on her narrative that the interruption failed to throw her. ‘It’s almost as if he saw the withdrawal of his benefit as an opportunity. A chance to follow his dreams for once.’ She looked up. ‘Sorry, that sounds daft.’
‘Not daft at all.’ Again Vera thought of the tiny community at Valley Farm. This case seemed to be all about people following their dreams. It had appeared a bit self-indulgent to her. ‘But we still don’t have any idea what his business might have been?’
Holly shook her head. ‘He had one friend at the charity. An ex-offender called Frank Sloan. Martin told Frank that he’d approve of the work that he was planning, but gave him no more details.’
‘So why the secrecy?’ Vera looked at Joe. ‘I hope you’ve got something for me, because we’ve got bugger-all to work on so far.’
‘I know how he travelled to Gilswick yesterday.’
‘So?’ Vera stretched and pretended not to be pleased. It didn’t do to have favourites.
‘He left his bike chained up at the bus station and got the bus. It left Kimmerston at two-thirty and arrived into Gilswick an hour later. It stops everywhere.’ Joe paused. ‘I spoke to the driver. Most of his passengers are regulars coming back from Kimmerston after shopping – Tuesday’s a bit busier than usual because it’s market day – so he noticed the stranger. He described Benton exactly, down to the suit. I got uniform to check, and the bike was still in the racks in the bus station.’
‘And how did our grey man get from the village to the big house?’
‘Randle picked him up in his car. The bus stops at Gilswick for quarter of an hour before heading back to town. The driver went into the post office to buy a can of pop and saw Benton get into the VW.’ Joe allowed himself a brief grin. ‘The guy described Randle’s car perfectly.’
‘And we know that both men arrived at the big house, because Randle’s VW was found there.’ Vera was trying to work out where everyone else in the valley had been at the time. Janet and Annie had been in the village hall for the WI, Nigel had been in the supermarket at Kimmerston and his wife had been painting at home. Vera had lost track of Percy Douglas and his daughter, who lived in the bungalow. She’d get Hol to knock up some sort of chart or spreadsheet for witness movements. It was the sort of thing she was good at.
‘What I don’t understand,’ Joe was saying, ‘is how Randle came to be in the ditch. We can assume that both men went into the flat. There were two mugs on the draining board. How did they come to be separated?’
‘And why was Benton wearing a suit?’ Holly surprised herself by speaking without having considered the words first and coloured slightly. ‘I mean, if they intended going out into the garden to look at moths, wouldn’t he wear something more casual?’ She looked at her colleagues.
‘Of course he would.’ Vera wondered how she could show that she was pleased with Holly’s contribution without sounding patronizing. In the end it was easier to do nothing. ‘So we’ve ended up with lots more questions.’
There was a silence. In the main office the hum of conversation continued. Outside there was the rumble of rush-hour traffic.
Holly looked at her watch. ‘I should get off to the station to meet Alicia Randle. I want to be there when the train arrives. I haven’t booked anywhere for dinner. Any ideas?’
‘What about Annie’s, that restaurant on the square?’ Vera thought there was nothing wrong with killing two birds with one stone. ‘Haven’t they got a private dining room? We went there once for the boss’s leaving do. I’ll see if that’s free. We’ll see you there, Hol. About seven?’
It was a kind of dismissal and Holly went. Joe and Vera were left alone. There was another moment of silence and then Joe got to his feet too.
‘Just a minute.’ Vera thought more clearly when he was there. Her brain was muddled with detail, but Joe was straightforward. He could see the wood for the trees. She poured more coffee into both their mugs. It was thick like drain-sludge. ‘Do you really think the interest in moths is what links these men? I just can’t see that as a motive for murder.’
‘I think it was what brought them together in the first place.’ Joe tried the coffee, pulled a face and stuck the mug on the windowsill. ‘There’ll be a website, won’t there? Online contact between moth-obsessives. It’s too much coincidence to think they never had any contact.’
‘We’ll get Holly to look into that in the morning.’
‘They might have become friends,’ Joe went on. ‘Of a sort, at least. An online relationship. Benton was shy, socially awkward. If this was their first meeting, perhaps the suit was about him wanting to make a good impression.’
‘So the meeting in the big house might not have been about work.’ Vera wondered if she could be described as socially awkward. Once she retired, would all her contact with the outside world be made online? ‘It might have been about friendship. And if that was the case, why did both men have to die?’Chapter Fourteen
Annie stood at the window in the bedroom and watched until she saw the detective’s car disappear down the lane towards the village. The house faced south and the valley seemed a lake of sunshine. It was only as the car joined the main road that she felt the muscles in her neck and face become relaxed. She realized how tight her whole body had been while Vera Stanhope had been prowling around their territory, prodding for answers, intruding into their space.
There was a moment of euphoria, like bursts of sunlight in her brain. Of course there was nothing to worry about after all. She was tempted to call Lorraine and Jan and suggest an impromptu bottle of wine. A girly gossip and some fizz to celebrate having Valley Farm to themselves again. Then she remembered that two men were dead and that although she couldn’t see into the big house because of the trees, there would still be people there. People in paper overalls and masks and they’d be searching for physical evidence, just as Vera Stanhope had been searching for connections in their own small community.
She heard footsteps on the bare wood of the stairs and Sam stood behind her. ‘She’s gone then.’
‘I was thinking we should go away,’ he said. He looked pale and he had a bit of a paunch. She thought, as she always did when she saw him face-on, that he could do with more exercise. Walk to the shop in the village if the weather was nice, instead of taking the car. Sometimes she panicked at the thought that he would die before her; then she decided that the worry was ridiculous.You’re the one to talk. A size sixteen these days! If anyone’s going to have a heart attack, it’s you.
Sam came up behind her and they looked together down at the burn. ‘We always said we’d do a cruise when we had the time, didn’t we? Let’s just go for it. Book something last-minute. The Med. The Caribbean. It doesn’t matter where it is.’
Oh yes!She imagined herself dressed in something silk and floaty, standing on the deck of a sleek white liner. Then she thought she’d done enough running away, and she turned slowly so that she was facing Sam and put her hands on his shoulders. ‘Let’s do that later,’ she said. ‘When all this is over. I couldn’t enjoy it properly now. Besides, there’s Lizzie to think about. She’ll be home any day. We can’t let her come back to an empty house.’
He shrugged and she could tell he was disappointed. The holiday had been his big idea for making her happy. A sacrifice, because he was never really happy away from home. His comfort zone had distinct geographical boundaries: the Tyne to the south, the North Sea to the east and the Scottish border to the north. He’d venture west into Cumbria if he was pushed, but he didn’t really enjoy it.
She tried to explain. ‘I’m such a control freak. I know I can’t control the police investigation, but at least we can be here, watching what’s happening. Seeing what dirt gets dug up and thrown around. I’d be a nervous wreck if we were too far away to get any information.’ He hadn’t responded to her comment about Lizzie and she decided not to push it. The glass wall that was their daughter still stood between them.
‘You’re paranoid,’ he said, but his voice was gentle.
She stroked his cheek. ‘And you’re very, very kind.’
There was a noise in the yard below them and they saw Lorraine emerge from the farmhouse. She carried a satchel over her shoulder; inside there would be her paints and brushes. She was wearing jeans and a sloppy hand-knitted jersey, and from this distance she looked about eighteen. Annie felt a stab of jealousy. Sometimes she and Jan speculated that Nigel’s wife had had work done on her face. A tuck or a lift, or Botox. And how could she stay so skinny? But really there was no sign of surgery; it must be down to genes or luck. Something must have made Lorraine aware of them looking down at her, because she turned and waved. Annie opened the window.
‘I’m just going to catch the last of this light.’ Lorraine sounded childishly happy. Annie wondered if she’d been drinking already, or if Vera Stanhope’s disappearance had caused her to relax suddenly too. ‘Isn’t it fabulous?’
‘Should you be going out on your own? The police don’t seem to have caught anyone yet.’ Annie could see what Lorraine meant about the light, though. It was seductive. She felt she could walk into it and drown.
‘I’m not going very far, and I’ll stay on the lane. You’ll hear me if I scream.’ Lorraine gave a little giggle, but Annie shivered at the thought of anyone screaming alone in the valley.
‘Come in for a glass of wine when you’ve finished, so we know you’re safe. We’ll get Jan to come along too.’
But Lorraine was already heading down the track and Annie wasn’t sure if she’d heard her.
Sam was cooking supper when Lorraine called at the house. She knocked at the back door and then came straight into the kitchen, still carrying the satchel. She looked radiant. Annie sensed Sam stiffen. The kitchen was his workspace and he didn’t like anyone other than Annie there. Not even a woman as bonny as Lorraine.
‘Come through,’ Annie said. ‘It gets cold when the sun goes down. I’ve just lit the wood-burner.’ She reached into the fridge for a bottle of Prosecco and followed Lorraine out.
In the living room Lorraine sat on the floor in front of the stove. The sun was low now and the room was in shadow.
‘Did you finish your painting?’ Annie twisted the bottle until she felt the pressure behind the cork and poured the wine into the glasses.
So it would be no good asking to see it. Lorraine never showed her work until it was done. Annie had once asked how she’d got into the painting. Lorraine had said she’d run art classes in prison and it had grown from there. Now it seemed to have taken over all her life. As if any minute not painting was wasted.
‘Shall I send Jan a text?’ Annie said. ‘See if she wants to join us?’
‘No point.’ Lorraine grinned. ‘I walked past her house and she’s fast asleep in the rocking chair with those great dogs at her feet. I could hear her snoring from outside.’
Annie opened the door of the wood-burner and pushed in another log. She had to reach across Lorraine to do so. Even close to, the woman’s skin was smooth and flawless.
‘What did you make of that detective?’ Lorraine had almost finished the first glass of wine.
‘Quite a character.’ Annie decided to be noncommittal.
‘A bit of a monster, I thought, but clever. She makes you think that she’s really stupid, then comes out with a question that surprises you because it’s so perceptive.’
‘Yes!’ Annie thought just then thatLorrainewas one of the most perceptive women she knew.
‘What do you think was going on down there in the big house?’ Lorraine narrowed her eyes. ‘Nigel thinks it was what he called “some random loony”, but I’m not so sure. You wouldn’t just wander into the valley by chance, would you? So what actually happened there that led to two murders?’
‘The detective asked us about an older man – the second victim – who was killed in the attic flat.’ Annie found herself being drawn into the conversation despite herself. She’d been terrified of dying since she was a child. Not the reality of pain or illness, but the idea of the world going on without her. She still had nightmares about suddenly disappearing, being swallowed up by the dark. Yet she found herself fascinated by these sudden deaths. Was it because, although they’d happened so close to home, the people involved were strangers? She felt like an extra in a TV drama. It was hard to believe the situation was real.
‘Martin Benton.’ Lorraine reached out and poured herself more wine. ‘The name’s on the BBC news website now. I checked before I came out. The police are asking for information about him.’
‘Did Vera Stanhope question you about yesterday evening?’ Annie could imagine Lorraine giving quite the wrong impression. She could be flippant, and was given to exaggeration.We were all pissed, of course! We always get pissed on party nights. It’s the only entertainment there is out here.
But Lorraine shook her head. ‘She was more interested in earlier in the day. The late afternoon and early evening. Percy found Patrick Randle’s body when he was driving home from The Lamb at teatime, so they think both murders must have happened before then. The police won’t be bothered by a few pensioners partying later that night.’
‘No.’ But Annie thought the fat detective would be interested in everything they did. She was that sort of woman. She allowed her eyes to glance at the clock on the wall. Sam took food seriously. He’d get moody if he thought the meal he’d prepared was spoiling.
Lorraine must have noticed because she stood up and set her glass carefully on the coffee table. She wasn’t always so tactful. ‘I must go. Nigel might be worrying about me. I’m surprised he hasn’t phoned to check that I’m okay.’
Annie thought Nigel would know exactly where Lorraine was. He watched her. He kept binoculars in the upstairs den and pretended they were to look for birds and animals in the woods, but Annie knew better than that. Sometimes she thought it was lovely that he obviously adored his wife, that he couldn’t let her out of his sight. Mostly she thought it was creepy. It occurred to her that if anyone had seen a stranger in the valley the afternoon before, it would be Nigel, staring out of his upstairs window keeping track of them all.
Annie let Lorraine out of the front door so they wouldn’t disturb Sam in the kitchen. On the stone step Lorraine paused for a moment.
‘I know it is horrible,’ she said. ‘Two deaths in the valley. The police nosing about. But it is interesting too, isn’t it? Thrilling to be so close to violence and sudden death. I can’t help being excited by it.’Chapter Fifteen
Holly drove slowly through Kimmerston, held up by heavy traffic. Roadworks in the middle of Front Street. Stopped at temporary lights, she was close to a cafe where tables had been set out on the pavement for the first time that spring. An elderly woman was sitting there. She was alone and presumably her companion was inside ordering coffee. She had round spots of rouge on her cheeks and her lipstick had seeped beyond her lips into the face powder. Her clothes were bright: a blue coat and a pink scarf. She was holding a rag doll on the table and bouncing it like a baby, talking to it. Holly had her window shut and couldn’t make out the words, but watched with embarrassment and fascination as the woman stopped bouncing the doll and cradled it in her arms and stroked the hair.
The woman obviously had dementia. Alzheimer’s, perhaps. There must be a carer somewhere, because surely it wasn’t safe to leave her alone there so close to the road. A thought flashed unbidden through Holly’s mind.Why do they allow old people like that out in the community? Wouldn’t she be more comfortable in a home somewhere?Knowing that it wasn’t the woman’s comfort that she was thinking of, but her own. Horrified that she could be so cruel and judgemental, that this reminder that evenshemight end her life being frail and mad, made her suddenly sick with disgust.
The traffic started moving again and Holly drove on without glancing back at the pavement. She arrived at the station early and waited on the platform for Alicia Randle’s train. The sight of the old woman from the pavement cafe was still troubling her. She’d always considered herself without prejudice, open-minded and fair. How could she have such an appalling reaction to someone who was obviously ill?
Boxes had been planted with flowers all along the platform and there were ornamental cherry trees, white with blossom beside the track; the air was heavy with the smell of them. Holly sat on a bench, suddenly tired. She must have fallen asleep and was only jolted back to consciousness by the screech of brakes as the train arrived. Alnmouth was a small station and few passengers alighted. A woman with very short white hair who’d been waiting further up the platform greeted a friend. They kissed and walked away arm-inarm. Holly tried to remember the last time anyone had greeted her with such affection. Then she saw Alicia Randle. Tall and elegant, dressed in well-cut trousers and a tweed jacket. Classy. Only a big leather shoulder bag for her overnight stay. As she got closer, Holly saw how pale she was, her eyes red-rimmed.
‘Mrs Randle.’ Holly held out her hand. ‘I’m so sorry.’ What else was there to say? ‘I’m Holly Clarke. We’ve been speaking on the phone.’
The woman’s hand was very cold and dry. She was older than she’d seemed at a distance, certainly in her late sixties. Holly remembered that Patrick had been a late baby, a consolation.
‘It was good of you to meet me.’ Manners would matter to Alicia Randle. Politeness was probably holding her together. It wouldn’t be good form to break down in front of strangers.
‘Let me take your bag and I’ll drive you to your hotel.’
Holly had found a small hotel for Alicia close to the park in Kimmerston. The owners brought them tea in a conservatory at the back of the house. The door was open and the sound of birdsong seemed very loud. Too cheerful for the occasion.
‘We wondered what you’d like to do this evening,’ Holly said. ‘My boss suggested that you might like to have dinner with us, but really if you’d rather stay here on your own, that’s fine too.’ She didn’t want to inflict Vera, with her size and her brash questioning, on this grieving woman. ‘There’s no restaurant here, but I’m sure they’d make some sandwiches for you to have in your room, and I can pick you up in the morning.’
‘That’s very kind.’ The politeness seeing Alicia through again. ‘Though I would like to meet the inspector, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble.’
‘It wouldn’t be too much for you?’
Alicia blinked and briefly the mannerly mask cracked. ‘I’ve lost two sons and a husband, Ms Clarke. I’m sure that I can survive dinner with the women who will, I hope, bring Patrick’s killer to justice.’ There was a brief moment of silence filled by birdsong, before she spoke again. ‘Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. You were just trying to be kind.’
The private room in Annie’s was too big for the three of them and it felt cold and unused. The only natural light came from a narrow window. They sat at one end of a large table. In the main restaurant there seemed to be a sixtieth birthday party, three generations celebrating, and whenever the waitress opened the door laughter and children’s voices spilled in. Vera had made an effort. Her hair was combed and she was wearing the suit that she kept in the cupboard at work, in case she was called to court. She was there before them and stood up to greet Alicia Randle. ‘Eh, pet, I’m so sorry.’ Holly thought Vera might attempt to take the woman into her arms, but she sensed in time that the physical contact might not be welcome.
The service was slow and they spoke as they waited for the food. Vera offered Alicia wine and she accepted, so there was a bottle on the table. Holly never took alcohol when she was driving, not even a small glass, so the older women drank it between them. They carried on the conversation too. Holly thought she might not have been there.
‘Tell me about your son.’ A classic Vera opening line. She was spreading butter on a warm roll and was looking at that, not at the woman on the opposite side of the table. Not wanting to make this sound like an interrogation, though the way they were sitting each side of the table reminded Holly of the interview room.
‘Patrick was a joy from the moment he was born. I was already in my forties and never thought I would have another child. Simon . . .’ Alicia looked at them to check that they knew she’d had another son, ‘was born while I was still a student and he died not long after Patrick was conceived. Perhaps it was because I was already middle-aged that Patrick was so calm and relaxed. My husband was considerably older than me and he died when Patrick was a boy.’
‘And now you’re on your own.’ A statement of fact.
‘I have friends, but Patrick and I were very close. I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing Simon, but I was wrong. Losing my husband wasn’t so terrible. He’d been ill for a while when he passed away, so it wasn’t a shock.’ She paused. ‘But this is horrible. Nobody should have to suffer in this way. I’m not sure I’ll get through this intact.’
‘Of course you will.’ It was Vera at her most bossy. ‘You’re strong. I can tell that.’ She paused for just a beat. ‘Did you find another man, after your husband died?’
Holly almost gasped at the bluntness of the question, but Alicia gave a little smile. ‘Yes. A widower. He’s really rather special. We were planning to get married in the summer. Now? I don’t think I can face it. Not just yet. It’s not a time for celebration.’
‘Did you not want to bring him with you today?’ Vera was poised with the bread close to her mouth.
‘No. This was something I had to do on my own.’
Vera nodded as if she quite understood. ‘You were telling me about your boy. Patrick.’
‘He was an easy child. Self-contained. He could spend hours lying on his stomach on the grass staring at bugs. He did his homework without being asked, and he never went through that teenage time of rebellion.’ Holly could tell she loved talking about her son. She was grateful to Vera for giving her the time and the space to do so. ‘I even liked his girlfriends. Simon was much more normal.’
‘Hedidgo through the teenage rebellion thing?’ Vera reached out for more bread.
‘Well, you know, he slammed a few doors in his time.’ She paused. ‘Actually it was worse than that for a few years. He mixed with kids I didn’t really approve of. He even had a brush with the law. Drugs. Though I never told Patrick that. Patrick always thought of Simon as some sort of role-model. And Simon did pull his life around. He got into Oxford. He was very bright. Very ambitious. In the end, I think that was what caused the suicide. He could never live up to his own expectations. He’d only been there six months when he died.’ A pause. ‘I was careful not to put Patrick under any pressure academically.’
The waitress came in with their food. They ate without noticing what was on the plates.
‘You said that you liked Patrick’s girlfriends,’ Vera said. ‘Was there anyone special at the moment?’
‘He’d been in a relationship for three years. All the time that he was doing his PhD in Exeter. She was a medical student. Rebecca. They were living together, and I was imagining that they’d marry. I must admit that I’d started to think about the wedding, hoping for grandchildren.’ Alicia put down her cutlery and sat for a moment staring into space. There would be no grandchildren now. ‘Then a little while ago they separated.’
‘I don’t know. Patrick wouldn’t talk about it, and that wasn’t like him. He came home for a month before he started house-sitting. He seemed a bit withdrawn and moody, but he didn’t even tell me that the relationship was over until I asked when Rebecca was coming to stay.’ Alicia paused. ‘I supposed that she’d finished with him, found someone else perhaps, and that he didn’t want to admit that he was hurting. The male-pride thing.’
‘We’ll need to talk to Rebecca,’ Vera said. ‘You’ll have her contact details. Perhaps you could give them to Holly here, when she drives you home.’
Alicia nodded. ‘I was tempted to speak to Rebecca myself when they separated. I even thought about coming up to Durham to meet her. But I knew Patrick would hate it if I interfered. And really it was none of my business. I just hated seeing him so unhappy.’
‘Was he still unhappy?’ Vera had finished her meal before the rest of them and sat back in her chair. She poured the last of the wine into Alicia’s glass. She wasn’t usually so moderate in her drinking, so Holly supposed Vera would be driving later. At least she wouldn’t have to taxi Vera home. ‘You’ll have been in touch with him since the two short contracts he did for the house-sitting agency. How did he seem?’
‘Better,’ Alicia said. ‘He was home for a month before he came north to Gilswick. He sulked around the house for a couple of weeks and spent hours in his room on his computer, but then he seemed to snap out of it. Become the old Patrick again. Though perhaps not quite. I asked him what the problem had been, but he didn’t want to talk to me.’
‘Did he catch moths when he was at home?’
‘Yes! He’s been doing that since he was about eight years old. We set up some traps in the orchard. One of the masters at his school was very keen, and a group of them became interested. I think Patrick’s the only one who’s maintained the passion.’ She gave a sad little smile. ‘I thought even when he was boy that he’d make a career of it, become an academic and continue his research.’
‘The second victim, an older man called Martin Benton, was passionate about moths too,’ Vera said. ‘It’s the only connection we can find between them. Do you recognize the name?’
‘No, but I wouldn’t do,’ Alicia said. ‘Patrick seemed mostly to communicate with other enthusiasts online. He had his own website and visited other people’s. There are separate lists for the different counties. It’s all rather esoteric. I could never get terribly interested, especially in the tiny moths – the micros – and they were Patrick’s favourites. Hard to identify, and a challenge.’
‘Martin Benton was a photographer.’ It was the first contribution Holly had made to the conversation. ‘His images are rather beautiful.’
‘I think Patrick was more interested in the science than the aesthetics,’ Alicia said. ‘He took pictures to help in identification. He’d put the moths in small jars in the fridge, because they’re still when they’re cold and easier to photograph. Then he let them go in the garden. He had no interest in collecting.’ She seemed lost for a moment in her memories. ‘But I suspect that he would have met Mr Benton, at least online. It’s a very small community.’ She looked up and her expression changed. Again the veneer of politeness shattered. ‘I need to know why somebody would have wanted my son dead. It’s the randomness of the brutality that makes it so hard to understand. I don’t even want vengeance. I just need to know what happened, and why.’ Her voice was scratchy, as if she had a throat infection or had been screaming.
‘And that’s what we want too.’ This time Vera did make contact. Alicia’s bony hand was lying on the table and Vera covered it with her big paw. ‘Can you let us have Patrick’s mobile number? We haven’t found his phone.’
‘Of course.’ The woman reeled off the number without having to check.
Holly looked in her notebook. It was the number Joe had taken from Benton’s landline. She caught Vera’s eye and gave a little nod.
Vera gave Alicia’s hand a little pat. ‘You’ll be tired with all that travelling. Holly will take you back now and we’ll catch up in the morning.’ She stood up and, obedient as children, both other woman followed.
It was dark outside. Vera came with them to the door, but didn’t follow them out. Alicia Randle took her place in the passenger seat and sat in silence, gripping her handbag on her knee, until they’d almost reached her hotel.
‘I’m glad that I met your boss,’ she said. ‘I think she’s a good woman.’
Holly thought for a moment. ‘She is.’ She paused. ‘And she’s a very good detective.’
Holly sat in the car outside her flat, overtaken by the exhaustion that had hit her at Alnmouth station. She felt as if she could sleep here in the street and not wake up until morning. At last she roused herself and climbed out of the vehicle. She let herself into the flat and stooped to pick up the post. In the kitchen she switched on the kettle.
The flat was new, in a recently built block on the site of a former fire station. Low-rise and discreet, its dark-red brick had been chosen to match the surrounding Edwardian houses in one of Newcastle’s more fashionable suburbs. Her apartment was at the back and looked over a cemetery. Most of the graves were old, covered with lichen and sheltered by mature trees, but occasionally there were funeral parties; elderly women dressed in black coats and hats shaped like mushrooms gathered around the newly dug hole in the ground, like crows around a roadkill rabbit.
Holly made some camomile tea and moved into the living room. It was square and uncluttered and she loved it. It had taken years of saving to get the deposit for the mortgage, but usually when she arrived here after work she didn’t begrudge a penny. This was where she could be calm and free from the irritations of work. She liked the silence, the lack of traffic noise, the sharp edges of the newly plastered walls and the sharp folds of the ironed linen sheets. She’d moved to the North-East because she thought a challenging place would be good for her career, and since moving to the flat she hadn’t considered leaving. Until now.
She seldom invited friends here. She preferred to meet in one of the restaurants and wine bars close to her home. Her friends were people she’d met at university or at the evening classes she took. She kept her distance from her colleagues. She enjoyed her own company. She set her tea on the glass table and went to close the blinds at the window. There was a moon now and the white light was shining on the marble headstones in the cemetery. It occurred to her that, at work and at home, she was surrounded by the dead.Chapter Sixteen
Vera stood outside the restaurant, waiting until Holly had driven away, and then she went back in. The birthday party was over and the main dining room was nearly empty. Vera wasn’t surprised. She thought the place was still trading on the reputation it had achieved under the old management. There’d been no imagination or flair to the food they’d eaten that evening. At the bar she ordered coffee and the bill and returned to the room where they’d sat for the meal. It was cold in there. She didn’t take off her coat, and felt as if she was sitting late at night in a station waiting room. The room was wood-panelled and dark.
An older woman who’d been in charge in the restaurant carried in the drink, the bill and a card machine. She seemed to Vera very glamorous in the dim lighting, like a film star from a former era. Her big eyes were lined with black and she wore heavy mascara. Her white blouse had one fewer buttons fastened than was entirely decent. Something about her was familiar. Vera paid and, as the woman was walking away, remembered where she’d seen her. ‘Weren’t you here under the old regime?’
The woman stopped and turned into the room.
‘Who wants to know?’ The voice went with the look. Husky. A badge pinned to her blouse had the name-tag Paula.
What was it with the fashion for name-tags?It’s as if we’re all dogs, Vera thought.As if we can’t explain who we are, if we get lost. She smiled. ‘Detective Inspector Stanhope. Have you got time for a chat?’
‘Let me just check what’s going on in the restaurant. They’ve employed a bunch of kids. Cheap, but crap.’
‘Not like the old days?’
Paula looked sharply at Vera, but didn’t answer. She returned a little later carrying a mug of tea.
‘I’ve told them to lay up for tomorrow and then let themselves out. I can lock up later.’ She nodded towards Vera’s coffee. ‘Do you want a real drink to go with that?’
‘Nah.’ Vera spoke quickly before she succumbed to temptation. ‘I’m driving.’
‘So are you just nosy,’ Paula took Alicia Randle’s seat at the table, ‘or do you have a reason for asking your questions?’
Vera paused. ‘Well, pet, I’ve always been nosy . . .’
‘But maybe you have a reason for talking to me too?’ Paula tossed back her hair, but it had been lacquered into shape and hardly moved.
‘Maybe.’ Another pause. ‘You did work for Annie and Sam, didn’t you? I’m sure that I’ve seen you in here.’
‘I worked front-of-house with Annie. As you said: the good old days.’ Paula set the mug on the table in front of her and stared into it. She might have been reading the tea leaves. ‘We were classy in those days. Great food. Nice atmosphere. The new owners just couldn’t carry that off. Headed downmarket. As if there aren’t enough cheap bars and restaurants in Kimmerston. There’s no way they can compete on price and they’ve got another place in Morpeth, so they’re hardly ever here. They’re just playing at it. I’d hand in my notice, but I suspect it’ll go under soon enough anyway. I might as well hang on, so I get paid my unemployment benefit as soon as I stop working. No point getting penalized for resigning.’ She drank tea. Her fingernails were as long as talons and painted scarlet.
Vera wondered what it would be like to have nails like that.Fun, she thought.It would be fun!She imagined waltzing into the incident room all glammed up, fingernails and cleavage flashing, and pictured Joe’s face. She felt a moment of regret. She’d never gone in for anything theatrical, even when she was young. She’d never been into anything fun at all. And it was all too late now. She became aware that Paula was staring at her.
‘Do you know why Sam and Annie sold up?’ Paula hesitated for a moment. ‘It was an important decision. Something they had to sort out for themselves. They weren’t going to discuss that with the hired help, were they?’
‘But you might have guessed what was going on.’ There was another hesitation, and Vera thought the woman was preparing to confide in her, but in the end her response was bland, almost meaningless. ‘They said they wanted to enjoy some quality time together before they got old.’ Which was what they’d told Vera.
‘Tell me about them.’
Paula stared at Vera across the table. ‘What is all this about?’
‘There was a double-murder in the valley beyond Gilswick. Naturally we’re interested in everyone who lives there.’
‘You must be joking!’ The waitress began to laugh. It started as a bewildered snigger, then became hysterical until she was choking. Vera couldn’t tell if she found the idea of her former employers as murderers genuinely amusing or if the laughter was a reaction to stress. At last Paula dabbed her eyes with a napkin and started speaking. ‘Annie and Sam are the gentlest people I’ve ever met. They adore each other and think the best of everyone. There is no way that either of them could be a killer.’
‘So there’s no problem in telling me a bit more about them then, is there?’ Vera leaned back in her chair. ‘How long did they run the restaurant here?’
Paula considered. ‘I remember the tenth anniversary,’ she said. ‘A glorious night. That wasn’t long before they sold up.’
‘What did they do before they took this place on?’
‘Sam was a farmer. His dad was a tenant of the Carswell estate, before the major sold off most of their holdings. It’s tough scraping a living from the hills. You know that. They kept going by diversifying and ran the farm as a B&B, and later they set up a shop and tea room – Sam’s baby. That was where the idea of this restaurant came from. The menu in the tea room was all about local food, simply cooked. When his father died, Sam knew he’d rather be a cook than a farmer. He gave up the tenancy and set up this place.’
‘What’s Annie’s background?’ Vera loved this part of the investigation: the excuse to satisfy her curiosity, to dig her way into the suspects’ lives.
‘She and Sam were childhood sweethearts. I think she grew up on the coast. Blyth perhaps? I’m not quite sure how they met, but it was while they were both at school. Then they separated and she went away to university. When she came back to Northumberland she was engaged to be married to someone else, but the week before the wedding Sam tracked her down. He turned up at her parents’ home one day and persuaded her that she was making the worst mistake of her life. He said that he was her one-and-only true love.’
‘And she went for that?’ Vera wondered ifshe’dbe taken in by a gesture so flash and corny. Probably. But she was middle-aged and overweight, and occasionally desperate not to be left alone.
‘Trust me.’ Paula smiled. ‘Showy romance really isn’t Sam’s style. Annie must have known he’d only have spoken up if he meant every word.’
‘Have they got any kids?’
‘A daughter.’ Paula snapped her scarlet lips shut.
Vera looked up sharply. ‘Problems?’
‘All kids have problems of one sort or another, don’t they?’ Vera didn’t answer and Paula continued, ‘And they certainly become problems for their parents. Mine were a nightmare as soon as they hit thirteen and didn’t become civilized until they were old enough to buy me a drink.’ She looked up at Vera. ‘Have you got any?’
Vera shook her head.
There was another silence until Paula continued. ‘Elizabeth, their daughter’s called. Known to everyone as Lizzie. Wild from the beginning. I think she was chatting up middle-aged men from her cradle.’
‘Is she still getting tangled up with the wrong sort of bloke?’ Vera tried to work out where this was leading, but was caught up in the story now and didn’t care if it was relevant to the case. Annie had told her that their daughter was working away, and Vera hadn’t bothered checking.
‘When Lizzie was still at school she had a relationship with one of the teachers. Got him sacked.’
‘Not her fault that!’ Vera shot back. ‘Especially if she was underage. The only guilty party was the man.’
‘I’d have thought just the same.’ Paula paused for a moment to finish her tea, though it must have been cold by now. ‘Until I met her. Lizzie has no boundaries. No limits. She goes for what she wants without any worry about the consequences, especially if the consequences are for other people.’ There was another hesitation. Outside in the street a couple of drunks were shouting to each other. ‘Sam and Annie were always bailing her out. I used to dread it when there was a phone call at work and it was from Lizzie. Sam would drop everything in the kitchen and rush out to rescue her from whatever scrape she’d made for herself. He’d bring her back here – they had a flat over the restaurant for a while – and she’d be pissed or stoned. Or just mad. Laughing like a drain, or in floods of tears.’
‘Did they try to get her some help?’
Paula shrugged. ‘I don’t think they wanted to admit that there was anything seriously wrong. Not then. Annie made excuses for her. She was always saying that Lizzie had finally turned a corner and they’d arrange for a new college course for her, or pay off someone she’d had a go at.’ Paula fished in her bag and pulled out a cigarette, lit it and took a drag.
‘This is a public place, and that’s illegal.’ But Vera trotted out the words with no force. Everyone had the right to their own vices.
‘You know what?’ Paula said. ‘I don’t fucking care.’
Outside in the street the drunks had started yelling some football chant. The end of the season and at least their team wasn’t going down.
‘Is that why Sam and Annie sold the restaurant?’ It was a big leap in the logic, but Vera thought Paula’s antipathy to Elizabeth was personal. She hated the girl, because she hated working for the new owners. ‘Was it something to do with Lizzie?’
A silence. ‘I don’t know. Like I said, they didn’t confide in me. Why would they? I’d only worked my guts out for them for about twelve years.’ Now the bitterness was obvious. ‘I only asked Annie to be my fucking bridesmaid.’
‘But you might have guessed?’ Vera’s voice was as gentle as a mother’s. ‘You strike me as a woman who understands things. Who’d know what was going on in that family. You and Annie were close as sisters.’
‘They found Lizzie a job,’ Paula said. ‘Pulled some strings. I don’t know how. Or perhaps Lizzie arranged it herself. Fancied the boss and made promises she was only too happy to keep. Rumour has it he fancied her rotten anyway, so perhaps the attraction worked both ways.’
‘And the name of the boss?’ Vera’s voice was as quiet as a whisper. Paula was in full flow and she didn’t want that to stop.
‘Jason Crow.’ Paula made it sound like a swear word. ‘Builder. Developer. Local wide-boy.’
The name was familiar. Vera had come across it through work. Crow had been charged with threatening behaviour, and then the case had been miraculously dropped when the victim had decided not to press charges. She said nothing, though, and Paula carried on talking: ‘Lizzie worked in the office. She did the filing. Sent out bills. Looked glamorous when the customers turned up. Kept the boss happy in her spare time. But it seemed she wasn’t as stupid as we all thought. She found some way of fiddling the payroll, siphoning a bit off every month into her own account. It took Jason six months to find out what was going on. It had made him look ridiculous and that was unforgivable. He was going to make an example of her.’
‘He threatened to go to the police?’
Paula looked up and gave a slow, wide smile. ‘Oh, that would only have been the start.’
‘Go on, Paula. Make the connection for me.’ The same encouraging mother’s voice.
‘The new owner of this place is Jason’s little brother. He already had a wine bar in Morpeth and he wanted to expand. Go figure.’ Paula stubbed out her cigarette on the side of her mug.
‘So Sam and Annie sold the place to Jason, to stop him having a go at their daughter.’
Paula shrugged. ‘I don’t know how much they got for it, but I bet it was nowhere near the market price. And it didn’t do any good, did it? That’s the fucking irony. The lovely Lizzie managed to get into quite enough bother, all by herself. And now she’s safe from Jason and all the Crows.’
‘Why? What happened?’
‘Nine months ago she got into a fight in a Newcastle nightclub and stuck a bottle into another lass’s face. Only just missed her eye. She’s in prison.’ Paula looked around her at the cold and dusty room. ‘Annie and Sam sold up for nothing.’Chapter Seventeen
Eight o’clock in Kimmerston police station. A weekday morning, but still the street outside was quiet. Sal had been on overnight toddler duty, so Joe felt refreshed, ready to take on the day. Ready to take on Vera. She was there before any of them and he wondered if she’d been in the building all night. Occasionally he’d found her asleep in the chair in her office at the start of the day. But she too looked bright and rested. No Holly. She’d been sent to take Alicia Randle to the hospital mortuary, so that she could view her son’s body. Even Charlie seemed awake. His daughter had moved home recently and he’d lost the air of depression and neglect that had lingered over him since his wife had left.
Vera had pinned a large-scale OS map on the board and started talking them through the geography, summing up for the new members of the team, who’d been drafted in to help. ‘This is the village of Gilswick. A pub, a church and a post office. Some older residents who’ve lived there for years, and lots of newcomers who commute to Newcastle or Kimmerston. Still, it’s a place where strangers are noticed, and I want all the houses canvassed. Let’s aim to do the whole community, even if it means repeat visits to catch folk in this evening. We know that Martin Benton arrived on the bus and Patrick Randle picked him up. Was anyone else seen in the place? We’re especially interested if they made their way down this valley.’ She pointed with a ruler to the map and looked around the room to check that she had their full attention.
‘This is where Randle’s body was found by Percy Douglas.’ Another stab at the map. ‘And this is the big house where Randle was the temporary house-sitter and where Benton’s body was found.’ A pause. ‘Joe, fill us in on what we know about our victims.’
Joe stood up. At one time he’d been nervous about taking centre-stage, but he thought Vera had cured him of that.
‘Patrick Randle. Only son of Alicia, who’s a widow. There was another boy, Simon, but he died before Patrick was born. Suicide. Patrick’s family was affluent. He went to an independent boys’ school and a good university. Graduated with a first, and went on to do a PhD in Exeter. Area of study was moths as an indicator of climate change. After the doctorate he decided to take a year out, before settling back into academia.’ For the first time Joe looked up from his notes. ‘Apparently that’s unusual. If you get offered a university post you grab onto it, before they change their minds. There’s fierce competition.’
‘So why did he take the year out?’ Vera could never keep quiet for very long in these sessions. ‘And why not do something a bit more exciting than house-sitting in rural Northumberland? It seems he separated from his long-term girlfriend at around the same time as he left university. Was that why he wanted to get away? Or was it a sign of some other crisis in his life?’ There was no answer in the room and she looked over at Joe. ‘Go on then! We don’t want to be sat here all day.’
Joe went back to his notes, though he knew the details off by heart. ‘The second victim is Martin Benton. Also the only son of a mother who doted on him, but from a very different background. Local comp, Northumbria Uni, before training to be a teacher. Suffered periods of work-related stress, before signing on for long-term sickness benefit. He was recently reassessed and found fit for work. But instead of registering for Jobseekers’ Allowance, he decided to go self-employed. We have no indication of what kind of business he set up. We know he was a whizz with computers and a skilled photographer, but we can’t find any promotional material or business plan. In fact there’s very little of interest on his PC – he seems to have been an obsessional deleter. The IT guys are digging around in it now. And although he set up a filing cabinet, there are no labels and all the files are empty. Maybe it was all still in the planning stage.’ He paused to catch his breath and Vera jumped in.
‘That reminds me,’ she said. ‘There was a Manila folder in the back of Randle’s car. Has Billy Cartwright still got it?’
The question was directed at Joe. He thought,Why am I supposed to be the person with the answer?‘I suppose so,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen it.’
‘Track it down, will you? It might be important.’ Vera looked up sharply. ‘And get on with it, Joe. Let’s have a sense of urgency here.’
Joe glared at her, but Vera only smiled.
‘Benton wore a suit for his trip to Gilswick and it’s possible that his meeting with Randle was work-related, that he’d found his first client.’ Joe took a breath. ‘Apart from a vaguely similar family structure, the only thing Benton had in common with Randle was an interest in moths. He was a keen amateur entomologist.’
‘Uh?’ Charlie’s first contribution.
‘Someone interested in insects.’
‘Thanks, Joe.’ Vera flashed him a smile, the only praise he was likely to get for his presentation. She turned back to the map. ‘After the big house, the lane follows the valley for about a mile and a half. The next house you come to is the bungalow where Percy Douglas and his daughter Susan live. She moved back with her dad when she got divorced, and her life’s work is to keep him on the straight and narrow. She cleans both for the Carswells and for all the residents of the Valley Farm development, which is here.’ The ruler hit the map again. ‘As you see, the track peters out into a footpath after the houses and then forks – one path leads down through the trees to the burn, and the other goes onto the hill and circles back to the village. It’s a popular route for walkers, and we could do with a media release asking anyone who was there on Tuesday afternoon and early evening to come forward. We’ll get Hol to work with the press office on that, when she’s seen Alicia Randle safely onto her train.’
Vera tracked her ruler back down the map until it rested on the blocks of colour that marked the house and barn conversions at Valley Farm. ‘Yesterday I spoke to all the folk who live here. An interesting group. All recently retired and relatively well off. Too much time on their hands, and nothing to think about but good works and getting pissed. So it seemed to me. First, in the barn conversion, we have Sam and Annie Redhead. They used to own and manage the restaurant in Kimmerston, but sold up in rather interesting circumstances.’
Joe listened to the information she’d gained from Paula the night before, and thought Vera was some sort of witch. How had she learned so much from a brief chat at the end of dinner?
‘Annie told me her daughter was working away,’ Vera said. ‘But having a daughter inside is probably not something you’d boast about to a stranger.’
‘I know Crow,’ Charlie said. ‘Teflon man. Nothing sticks to him.’
‘Capable of murder, do you think?’ Vera’s eyes were bright. Joe thought she was in terrier mode, sniffing out more leads.
‘Capable of anything. He’s famous, Jay Crow, for being a cold and ruthless bastard.’ Charlie stared at her. ‘But I can’t see what the motive might be. Why kill a couple of geeks who have nothing to do with his business? Who are no threat to him.’
‘Quite. I think someone should have a chat with Lizzie Redhead, though. Joe, can you do that? She’s being kept out of harm’s way in Sittingwell Prison. Apparently she likes the men, so see if you can charm some information from her. Find out if she’s ever had any contact with our victims. I don’t quite see her as a woman with a passion for natural history, but we need to check.’
Joe nodded, but felt a sudden gloom. He disliked prison visits. It wasn’t the smells, the catcalls from the inmates or being locked up. He knew he was a daft bugger, but it was coming out at the end of the session and hearing the door shut behind him, knowing that the people he’d just interviewed were still inside. ‘It might take a while,’ he said. ‘You know what they’re like these days about visits.’
‘This is a murder inquiry.’ She shot the words back at him. ‘Tell them you need to see her today.’
Sittingwell was an open establishment. Joe had checked out Lizzie Redhead’s records with the prison department. She’d spent a month in a local dispersal prison and then been sent here. Middle-class and first-time offender, so it had been decided she posed no security risk. Once Sittingwell had been a grand house. Victorian Gothic. Then a home for ‘fallen’ women, then a sanatorium. It still had the trappings of the original grand house. There were tennis courts in the grounds, but the nets had been removed and grass was growing through the hard surface. The lawns were mowed, but most of the flowerbeds were overgrown, with occasional patches where they’d been freshly weeded. A high wall surrounded the place, but there was no razor wire, no clanging gates. In reception Joe handed over his phone and signed in, then waited in a small interview room for Lizzie Redhead to be delivered to him.
The room might once have been the hospital’s office. It had a high ceiling and a large sash window. The prison was pleasant enough in late spring, though it still had the institutional smell of disinfectant and overcooked greens. In winter Joe imagined it would be unforgiving; an easterly wind would rattle the draughty windows and the big trees would be bare and gloomy. Outside a work party was pushing bedding plants into a patch of soil close to the main door. The women seemed happy enough, chatting with the prison officer in charge, breaking out into an occasional burst of laughter, but most of them were of an age when they’d have small children and his thoughts were with the kids. Sittingwell had a mother-and-baby unit, but once the children were toddlers they were sent away to live with relatives or foster parents.
The door opened and Lizzie was brought in. Joe stood up and held out his hand. Vera had told him to charm her. Even in her uniform denim and ill-fitting jeans she was stunning to look at. Coppery hair and white, flawless skin. Not too skinny. Sal was always on a diet, though Joe had told her she looked better when she was eating properly. Lizzie took a seat at the little table and looked across at him. He felt flustered and for a moment forgot how he’d planned to start the interview. She didn’t speak and there was a silence that he found awkward, but it didn’t seem to bother her at all.
‘What am I supposed to have done now?’ she said at last, her voice amused. She leaned back in her chair. Her accent was classy and he wondered how she fitted in here. Even in an open prison, she’d be out of place.
‘There have been two murders near to your parents’ home.’
‘Well, you can’t blame those on me.’ When she smiled he saw that her teeth were small and very white, oddly sharp. A carnivore’s teeth. There was something about her that reminded him of a fox. ‘I’ve been in here for three months.’
Joe felt like a new officer. His brain had turned to sawdust and he’d lost control of the interview already. ‘Jason Crow,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t like you much. He’s not the sort to take kindly to people who steal from him.’
‘I’m sure he hates my guts.’ She paused and gave a brief smile. ‘But he wouldn’t kill two strangers just to inconvenience my parents.’
‘Were they strangers?’
‘What do you mean?’ Lizzie was playing for time. Or just playing with him.
‘Did you know either of the victims? You’ll have a telly in here. You’ll have seen the story on the news.’
‘I don’t watch television much. Most of what’s on is drivel.’ She looked up at him. ‘Remind me.’
‘Patrick Randle and Martin Benton. Patrick was a student. Not local. Martin was a teacher a while ago.’ Joe had a sudden thought. ‘Maybe he taught you?’ The timings would fit.
She paused for a moment. Thinking. Or pretending to think. ‘The names don’t ring any bells. I hated school. I’ve tried to forget all that.’
‘You didn’t come across those names when you were working for Crow?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t remember them.’
There was another silence, broken this time by Joe. ‘What’s it like in here?’
She seemed surprised by the question. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Some of the screws are okay.’ She paused. ‘My parents sent me away to boarding school when I was thirteen. They said all I needed was a bit of discipline, and to get away from the bad crowd in Kimmerston. That was much worse than being inside. Everyone hated me. I was only there for six months. The same sentence as I got for nearly blinding a woman. Here everyone’s screwed up and I’m one of the sane ones. Almost responsible. It makes a change to be one of the good guys.’
‘Do you know anything about moths?’
‘What?’ She looked at him as if he was mad. He’d have bet a month’s salary she wasn’t acting this time.
‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘It was just a long shot.’
Outside the gardeners were moving on to a different flowerbed, piling tools onto a wheelbarrow. He could hear another peal of laughter, remembered the tabloid papers’ descriptions of open prisons as holiday camps and pushed the thought away.
‘How are my mum and dad?’
‘Don’t they come and visit?’
‘My mother does. My father can’t bear to. He loved the restaurant and he blames me for having to sell up.’ She stared at the women outside. ‘Quite right too. It was all my fault.’ She stared out of the window. ‘Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me, why I can’t be like other people. It’s boredom mostly. I’ve always got bored so easily.’ Another pause. ‘I’ve got less than a week to go before I’m released. Full remission. Like I said, I’ve been a good girl.’ She didn’t sound delighted by the prospect of leaving prison.
‘Will you go and stay with your parents?’ Joe thought if Lizzie had been bored in Kimmerston, the house at the end of the valley would drive her to madness in a matter of hours.
‘For a while,’ she said. ‘I suppose. Until I get myself sorted out.’
‘You could see it as a new chance.’
She grinned, showing the sharp fox’s teeth. ‘You sound like my social worker.’
‘Aye, well, my boss always says I’m a soft touch.’ As soon as he spoke he thought that instead of charming Lizzie Redhead, he’d been charmed by her. Vera would have been better sending Holly, who was never taken in by anyone’s sob-story.
He stood up and opened the door to tell the prison officer outside that the interview was over.
‘So you can’t help about these murders?’
She shook her head and got to her feet, but the officer gestured for her to stay where she was.
‘You’ve got another visitor. Popular today. You might as well wait here.’
So Joe left on his own, without really having a chance to say goodbye to her. He turned to look as he was led away, but Lizzie had her back to him and was nibbling her nails and staring into space.
In reception he had to wait while a smartly dressed woman was let in through the outer door. He listened while the officer behind the glass signed her in. Her name was Shirley Hewarth and she said she was from the charity Hope North-East. When she’d passed through into the prison, Joe spoke to the officer on the gate. ‘Any idea who she was going to visit?’
He thought the man would refuse to answer, but he only sounded bored. ‘The same lass as you. Elizabeth Redhead.’ He looked up briefly from his paperwork. ‘Bloody do-gooders, eh?’Chapter Eighteen
Lizzie watched the detective leave the room. She’d been surprised to see him there when the screw had brought her in. She’d been expecting Shirley Hewarth. Joe Ashworth hadn’t seemed much like a detective to her. He was too gentle. Good-looking enough, but not her type. He talked more like a doctor or a priest. He’d be no real match for her. There’d be no steel in him. No fire. Nothing to hit against.
She looked out of the window while she waited for her new visitor to arrive, imagined Ashworth walking out through the main door, getting into his car and driving through the gate. She thought she’d soon be there too. Outside. The women talked aboutOutsideas if it was a different place in a different universe. But lots of them were at Sittingwell because they were working towards a release date after years inside a high-security prison. Lizzie had met murderers here. Women who’d killed their kids. Their men. Of course they’d be daunted to be leaving. She didn’t thinkshe’dfind it so hard to adjust to the outside world. She had plans.
The policeman’s visit had been a shock. She couldn’t have anticipated a double-murder in the valley. She was running through the implications of the news when the door opened and Shirley Hewarth came in. The woman always looked very smart. Professional. Lizzie liked that about her. She thought appearances mattered. Shirley had brought a bag of sweets and opened them on the table, nodded for Lizzie to take one. Lizzie took a sherbet lemon. Her favourite. She liked the sharp burst of sherbet on her tongue when the hard lemon case was shattered.
‘So, Lizzie. Only a few days until your release. We should be thinking of your future.’
Lizzie nodded. She thought any screw listening in to the conversation would be completely misled. The conversation sounded just like any other pre-release interview between a social worker and an offender. They would never guess that Shirley and Lizzie shared secrets. And, sure enough, there were footsteps on the parquet floor in the hall outside as the officer moved away to sit at the desk in reception.
‘I’m going to chat with your mother,’ Shirley went on. ‘Is that okay with you?’
‘Why do you need to talk to her?’ Lizzie looked up sharply.
‘You’ll be staying with her, won’t you?’
Lizzie thought about that. Her parents didn’t feature in the pictures she held in her head. But she was suddenly surprised by a wave of emotion as she thought how it would be good to spend some time with them. Inside, she’d come to enjoy the ritual of daily life. The calmness of the expected. Her parents would provide that for her too. It would be a good place to make decisions and set her up for her next big adventure.
‘You won’t tell them about Jason,’ Lizzie said. She thought she’d shared too much with the social worker. Shirley had been a good listener and she’d seemed to understand. Lizzie hadn’t meant to pass on Jason’s secrets. They’d spilled out when Shirley had asked her about her experience of prison.
‘Everything between us is confidential. You know that.’
‘There was a murder in the valley. A young man called Patrick Randle.’ Lizzie realized that she was moved by the thought. Although she’d never met Patrick, she pictured a good-looking young man lying on a table in a mortuary. White and waxy. Some of the women in Sittingwell knew about violent death and had described the procedure. Even those inside for less serious crimes were fascinated and borrowed books about famous killers from the prison library. They told her all about the process, about the crime-scene investigation and the post-mortem, forensics and DNA. She knew where the pathologist cut into the body. She looked at Shirley, expecting a comment, but none came. ‘And an older man.’ Lizzie had no interest in picturinghisbody.
‘You’ve heard about that?’ Shirley spoke at last. She seemed surprised. Upset.
‘Were you going to tell me?’
Lizzie looked at the social worker. She thought Shirley Hewarth had secrets too – so many secrets that they might get confused in the woman’s head.
‘How did you know about the murders?’ Shirley sounded shaken, uncertain. Lizzie thought she seemed tired, with that deep exhaustion that comes from several nights without any sleep.
‘I’ve just been interviewed by a detective.’ Lizzie looked up. ‘He asked me about the murders. Because they happened close to where my parents live. He thought Jason might be involved.’
A silence. Outside someone was walking on the gravel path beyond the window and they both waited until the sound moved away.
‘What did you tell him?’
‘Nothing,’ Lizzie said. ‘There was nothing to say. Two strangers were killed in the valley. What could that have to do with me or Jason?’
‘Of course.’ Shirley wiped her hand across her forehead and Lizzie thought again that she looked exhausted. ‘We’ll have to think about finding you work,’ Shirley said, her voice suddenly bright and professional. ‘I thought the hospitality industry might suit you. You’re articulate and present very well, and you’ll have picked up a lot from your parents. You might consider a college course in September, but it would be good to get some hands-on experience before that.’
There was another silence. Lizzie couldn’t imagine working in a restaurant. She’d never been any good at taking orders. She had travel in her head. Wide spaces, to contrast with this place. Huge grasslands and orange deserts. Once she’d made her peace with her family and raised the funds, she’d disappear overseas. She’d joined the creative writing group in Sittingwell and had secret dreams of writing a book to capture her travels. Didn’t writers make money?
‘I’ve been thinking I should go to the police.’ The social worker’s voice burst into Lizzie’s dreams. ‘Explain about Jason. This is murder, after all. The things he told you might be more relevant than you realize.’
‘No!’ Lizzie forced her voice to be calm. ‘You promised. Everything we discussed was confidential. I trusted you.’
Shirley didn’t reply.
‘I’ll be out soon and we can discuss things properly. Will you at least wait until then?’
‘I can’t stop thinking about it,’ Shirley said. ‘It’s making me ill. There are things you don’t understand. Martin Benton, the older victim, used to work for me.’
‘Do you know who killed him?’ Lizzie felt another tingle of excitement. She could understand why some of the women inside loved those true-crime books. The ones with pictures of blank-faced killers staring out of the pages. There was something compulsive about the sadism. The sexual violence. She remembered again Jason’s words, his hard laughter and his scorn at her tears. The books the women read were all about pain and humiliation.
There was another long silence before Shirley spoke again. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘So you’ve nothing to tell the police.’ When she was a child and hadn’t been able to persuade her friends to do as she wanted, Lizzie had thrown tantrums, pulled hair and dug fingernails into soft flesh. Now she’d learned to be more subtle, more reasonable. ‘What can you contribute to the investigation? You’ll just be another crank with weird stories to tell.’
‘I suppose that’s true.’ Shirley was about to stand up.
‘The older dead man,’ Lizzie said. ‘The one who worked for you. What’s his role in all this?’
‘I don’t know.’ Now Shirley did get to her feet. She began to walk towards the door to call to the officer sitting at the reception desk in the grand lobby that she was ready to go. ‘Really, I can’t see how he might have got caught up in this business at all. I don’t understand any of it.’
Watching from her chair, Lizzie thought Shirley was lying.Chapter Nineteen
Holly stood beside Alicia Randle in the mortuary and tried to put herself in the older woman’s place. Why had Alicia felt the need to travel north to look at a dead body? There was nothing of the young man left inside the grey skin but bone and muscle. A white sheet reached to his neck. Alicia stretched out an arm. Holly was afraid that she was going to pull back the sheet to reveal Paul Keating’s dissection. Instead the woman touched her son’s forehead.She needed to be certain, Holly thought suddenly.All this time she’s been carrying the hope that there was a mistake, that her boy wasn’t the victim.She twisted her body so that she could see Alicia’s face without seeming to stare. The woman was crying. No sound. Even in her grief she felt the need to maintain a certain dignity.
‘ThatisPatrick?’ The Carswells’ cleaner had made the formal identification, but Holly felt now that she needed to ask.
‘Oh yes. Or itwasPatrick.’ Alicia stroked the forehead again, bent to kiss it lightly and then turned away.
She was booked on a train later in the morning and Holly drove her into Alnmouth for coffee, instead of leaving her to wait on her own at the station. They sat in the window of an old-fashioned tea shop. In the car there’d been no conversation, but now Alicia seemed to feel the need to talk.
‘I found Simon,’ Alicia said. ‘My first dead golden boy. He’d hanged himself. Tied a belt round a bannister and dropped into the stairwell. I still have nightmares. I don’t think he meant me to find him. Of course his father was alive then, and I was supposed to be spending the day with friends. But I got bored and came back to the house early. It was this time of year. Simon was home from Oxford for the Easter holidays and I wanted to spend some time with him. I could tell that he was stressed. My husband had high expectations of both the boys. I’ve always thought Simon planned for his father to find the body. A petty act of revenge and quite unfair.’ She was dry-eyed now, but the words flowed instead of tears. ‘Suicide can be a kind of violence too, don’t you think? It hurts the people left behind. It took me a long time to forgive Simon, but I understood even at the time how desperate he must have been. At least I can grieve for Patrick without those complications. Without blame.’ She paused and sipped the coffee. The cups were very small and painted with flowers. Vera wouldn’t have got her fat fingers through the handle.
Holly didn’t know what to say. Usually she was confident and decisive at work, but this case seemed to be undermining her judgement. ‘We can’t find any motive for either murder,’ she said at last. ‘You don’t have any idea why someone would have wanted to kill Patrick?’
‘In the last year I felt as if I’d lost touch with him.’ Alicia poured more tea. Her hand shook a little and there was a spill on the tablecloth. ‘We’d been so close, especially after my husband died, but more recently if he’d had problems, I don’t think I’d be the person he’d come to. Perhaps he disliked the fact that I’d fallen in love with another man, though he always seemed to get on well enough with Henry.’
‘Can you think of anyone he might have confided in?’
Alicia shook her head. ‘At one time I’d have said Rebecca, his girlfriend, but as I told you last night, they’d separated. There were colleagues, people at the university. I don’t think he was particularly close to them, though. They shared a passion for Lepidoptera, but not much else.’
‘Does Rebecca know that Patrick is dead?’
‘Not from me! I suppose she might have seen it in the media. Of course I should have phoned her.’ The woman seemed distraught. ‘How dreadful not to have thought of that!’
‘I’m sure she’ll understand,’ Holly said. ‘Would you like me to tell her?’
‘Oh, please do. Pass on my apologies. Tell her I’ll be in touch. She might like to come to the funeral.’ Alicia’s voice tailed away.
‘Have you had any thoughts about that?’ Holly thought how hard it must be to plan a funeral for a child. Somehow it was unnatural for a son to die before his mother. Two sons.
‘I’ll bury him in the churchyard in the village, next to his brother,’ Alicia said. ‘They never met, but I know that’s where Patrick would like to be.’ She looked at her watch. ‘The train won’t arrive for half an hour, but would you mind driving me to the station, please? I’m afraid I’m not very good company, and I’d rather be there in plenty of time. Punctuality has always been an obsession. Patrick used to tease me about it.’
At the station Holly got out of the car and shook the woman’s hand. With anyone else she would have been less formal, put an arm around her shoulder, taken a hand, but she knew Alicia Randle wouldn’t want that. ‘Shall I wait with you?’
‘No, no.’ It sounded as if the woman was horrified by the thought and Holly understood. Alicia was close to tears and wanted to sit on the empty platform and cry in peace.
Back in the police station in Kimmerston, Holly tried to track down Rebecca Brown, Patrick’s ex-girlfriend. The number that Alicia had given them over dinner was unavailable. She was about to call the university in Exeter when Vera wandered up to her desk. ‘Can you sort out a media release, Hol? I’d like to get it out for the lunchtime news. If there was a stranger in the valley, somebody must have seen him, and the canvassers have come up with bugger-all so far. Let’s appeal to all the nosy stay-at-homes in the surrounding villages and the people who were walking on the hills or along the burn. We need details of any unfamiliar cars or people. I’ve still got teams out there, but we need a wider hit.’
Holly nodded and replaced the phone. The call to the university would have to wait.
‘How was Alicia Randle?’ Vera leaned against the desk. The fat on her backside spread inside her Crimplene skirt, made it bulge. Holly found herself fascinated by it.
‘Very brave,’ Holly replied. ‘She said it was easier to grieve for Patrick than for her first son. Less complicated. He couldn’t be in any way to blame.’
‘Let’s hope that’s true.’ Vera slid away from the desk, leaving Holly to wonder exactly what she meant.
Later, when the media release had been sent to the press office for approval, Holly tried again to track down Patrick’s former girlfriend. The woman at the end of the phone in Exeter University’s school of medicine was cautious. ‘Give me your number and I’ll call you back. You could be the press.’
The phone rang half an hour later and the university admin officer had all the information Holly needed. ‘Rebecca Brown’s at home with her parents in County Durham.’ She read out the address. ‘It’s still the Easter holidays and she won’t be back at the university until the middle of next week. This is her mobile number.’ She finished the call without asking any questions. Holly couldn’t tell if she was very busy or very discreet.
A male voice answered Rebecca’s mobile. ‘Who is it?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, ‘Becky’s not up to talking now.’ He sounded angry.
Holly supposed this meant that Rebecca had seen the news about Patrick’s death and had been upset by it. She introduced herself. ‘And who are you?’ Keeping the question polite.
‘I’m her brother. The press have tracked her down. So-called friends must have told them she knew Patrick. It’s been a nightmare. We’re worried that if someone doesn’t answer her phone, they’ll just turn up on the doorstep.’
‘We’ll need to talk to her, I’m afraid. Can I come there?’
There was a pause and Holly heard a muffled conversation in the background. ‘When do you want to come?’
‘Now,’ she said. ‘If that’s all right.’ She thought again that she’d be glad to escape the office and Kimmerston.
The young protector at the end of the phone agreed and gave directions.
The Browns lived in a small market town on the edge of the Durham moors. Once it must have been prosperous. There were grand Georgian houses and an impressive town hall stood on the market square. Now, though, many of the shops in the main street had been closed and were boarded up, and even in the sunshine it had an air of desolation. The Browns lived in one of the big merchants’ houses close to the square. By the time Holly arrived it was late afternoon. The market was closing down, the stallholders folding tarpaulins and clearing tables. Cauliflower leaves and overripe tomatoes littered the cobbles. There was no sign that the press had tracked down Rebecca’s address, and the street outside the house was quiet.
The door was opened by a young man who must have been close to Patrick Randle in age and a little older than his own sister. ‘I’m George. Mum and Dad are out. Dad’s a GP and he’s still at the surgery. Mum’s just gone into town to visit a friend. Becky’s in here.’
It was a big family kitchen looking out over an untidy garden, and a young woman sat in the window-seat looking out. She was big-boned, tall and blonde. When she saw Holly she stood up. Her eyes were red from crying, but she managed a smile. ‘Sorry I’m in such a state. I can tell George thinks I’m being a bit of a drama-queen. It sounds like something out of a women’s mag, but Patrick really was the love of my life. I can’t believe he’s dead.’ A pause. ‘That someone killed him.’ She sat back down, but now she faced into the room.
‘Had you heard from him recently?’ Holly took a kitchen chair. The room looked as if it had been furnished by individual purchases from auctions. Lots of beautiful pieces, but nothing coordinated. Holly thought she wouldn’t have been able to stand the clash of colours and the clutter. It would bring on a migraine. She’d need to clear the place and start from the beginning.
‘There was a cryptic text a week ago.’ Becky pulled out her phone. ‘I’ve saved it, of course. It says:Nearly fit to be your friend again. If you can forgive me.’
‘What did you take that to mean?’
‘That whatever project had taken up the whole of his head for nearly a year was complete.’ Becky looked up at her. ‘That he was planning to come back to me.’
‘And you’d have had him back?’ Holly wouldn’t have considered returning to a failed relationship. It would never work and anyway she had too much pride.
‘Of course. I’ve told you he was the love of my life. But I couldn’t be with him as he was. Semi-detached. Obsessed with strange conspiracy theories.’
‘What sort of theories?’
Becky shrugged. ‘At first I thought it was about his work. Some scientists are haunted by the thought that another researcher will publish before them or steal their data. And Pat’s stuff was quite topical. There are still climate-change deniers, and his findings would have made their position seem even more ludicrous. He was always passionate about his work.’
It seemed unlikely to Holly that research into the habits of flying insects could provide a motive for murder, but she kept quiet.
Becky continued, ‘Then I thought it was something entirely different that was eating away at him. Something to do with his family. It seemed to start when his mother took up with another bloke, but the timing could have been coincidental. Or perhaps that triggered his desire to know more about his close relatives. Anyway all his spare time was taken up digging away in old newspaper reports and family-history sites online. And his attitude to his mother changed too. They’d always been very close, but suddenly he was cold when he spoke about her. It was as if visits home were just a drag. I hated the way he was with her. It wasn’t the Patrick I’d known and loved.’
‘He’d discovered something about Alicia? Something he disapproved of?’
‘I don’t know what he’d found out, because he wouldn’t talk to me about it. That was why I broke off with him. He seemed to be going faintly loopy, but I didn’t split up with him because I thought he was losing his mind. If I’m going to be a GP, I’ll have to deal with that and I knew he wasn’t really mad. And it wasn’t because I thought he was totally crazy to give up the chance of an immediate research post, when that was what he wanted since he was about twelve. I dumped him because he was being so bloody secretive. I only know that his family had anything to do with his obsession because I caught him digging into past copies of his local newspaper online. He seemed to be brooding over his father’s obituary. And even then he wouldn’t talk to me. He said he’d tell me the whole story when he knew it himself.’
‘What’s the name of the newspaper?’ Holly thought it was a long shot, but Vera Stanhope liked detail.
‘So you were the one to end the relationship?’ Holly was trying to make sense of this. The boss would love it. She enjoyed complication, stories of past feuds and tensions. In Holly’s experience, murder was usually much simpler.
Becky nodded. ‘And, you know, I think Patrick was almost pleased. Because that would give him a free hand to carry on with his research. Or whatever it was that was keeping him awake all night.’
‘Was anyone helping him? There was another victim. An older man called Martin Benton.’ Holly was already imagining taking all this information back to Vera, but it would be even better if she could find a connection between the two men.
‘The name doesn’t mean anything.’ Becky had turned back to face the window. Outside an old apple tree was in blossom, the flowers the colour of candy floss. ‘But. as I said, Patrick didn’t talk to me about it.’
‘Do you know if the Randle family had any connection with Northumberland? Did the county have a special meaning for him?’ Holly thought the man could have come north to continue his research. ‘We still don’t know why he chose to come to the area.’
‘Well, it wasn’t to see me.’ Becky stood up. ‘I thought I might phone him, you know. After I got that text from him. I was going to offer to meet up. I kept planning the words in my head.We’re only forty miles apart. Let’s get together for a drink. In Newcastle maybe. That’s kind of halfway.But in the end I decided against it. I thought I had to let him come back to me when he was ready. And that’s what’s really hurting. I could have seen him, changed things. He might even still be alive. It’s not just grief that’s kept me awake since I heard he’d died.’ She paused and looked directly at Holly. ‘I feel so bloody guilty.’Chapter Twenty
Vera sat in her office and brooded. Joe had come back from the prison with news of his conversation with Lizzie Redhead. He’d achieved precious little and she thought that she should have gone instead. Joe was at the time in his life when his judgement could be clouded by a bonny lass. The only useful information he could offer was that the woman from the prisoners’ aid charity had visited too. What was that about? Lizzie would have plenty of support on the outside and a home to go back to. Vera thought there were people who needed Shirley Hewarth’s help more than Lizzie Redhead.
A wasp was buzzing against the glass of the window. Vera opened it, letting in a sudden roar of traffic noise, and set the insect free. Wasn’t it too early in the year for wasps? She stood up, grabbed her bag and went out. In the car park she passed Holly and was tempted to stop and ask how she’d got on with Patrick’s girlfriend, but in the end she only waved and drove away. She felt she was being sucked back to the valley where the bodies had been discovered. As if it was a vacuum and there was no resistance.
The place was quiet. It was about the same time of day as when she’d first visited in response to the discovery of Patrick’s body. That had been two days ago, and they still hadn’t found the place where he’d been killed, though the search team had been working from dawn until almost dusk over the past two days. Costing a bloody fortune in overtime. They’d finished for the evening and Vera drove past the entrance to the Carswells’ house, the house that the locals called ‘the Hall’. Percy’s Mini was parked outside the bungalow, but here too everything was quiet. As she approached the front door there was the faint murmur of the television. She rang the bell and heard the sound of it inside. It took a while for anyone to answer and Vera thought that Susan must be out. Percy’s daughter was so curious that she’d have the door open immediately.
The old man looked a little dishevelled and she thought he must have fallen asleep in front of the TV.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ He stood aside to let her in.
‘Your Susan not around?’
‘She’s gone into Kimmerston to see some friends. Regular date, once a month.’
‘Ah well,’ Vera said. ‘It was you I wanted to see anyway.’
He took her into the living room and switched of the television. ‘Just rubbish anyway.’ Then he offered her tea.
‘You’re all right,’ Vera said. ‘I’m awash with the stuff. I’m not sure what I’m here for really. Only a chat, and to get out of the office.’ She sat in an armchair by the window and waited for him to take his place. ‘Do you have much to do with the folk up at Valley Farm?’
It took him a while to gather his thoughts. She thought he’d probably been to The Lamb for a couple of pints, then eaten a big supper. He’d have been fast asleep within minutes of his daughter leaving, the doorbell jolting him awake, leaving him a bit confused and dazed.
‘I see them around.’ She thought hehadbeen to the pub, because he was dressed in proper trousers and a shirt, a grey cardigan, just as he had been when they’d first met. ‘They seem decent enough. I’ve known Sam Redhead all his life, of course. He grew up on the estate farm. He’s always been a quiet kind of chap.’
‘Did you ever meet their daughter?’
He shook his head. ‘I heard stories. It’s hard being a parent. You have to stick by them, even if you don’t always like the way they carry on.’
There was a moment of silence. ‘Does Susan clean for all of them?’
‘Aye. Mrs Carswell recommended her to the Prof. and his wife, and then the other houses took her on.’
He nodded. Vera waited. ‘She likes some of them better than others. The Prof. can be a bit particular. He doesn’t like her moving the stuff on his shelves, then complains because there’s a bit of dust left.’ Another pause. ‘He’s a proper writer. He’s had real books published. Not fiction. Historical stuff.’
‘What about Janet? His wife?’
‘Susan says she’s a bit of a doormat. It’s almost as if she’s scared of him.’ He looked up. ‘But you don’t want to take too much notice of what Susan says. She’s never been one to let the truth stand in the way of a good story.’ He gave an awkward little laugh. ‘I tell her she should be a writer herself.’
Vera smiled too. ‘You must remember the farmhouse up there when it was still working. The place where the Lucas family lives now.’
‘I used to work there. Contract mostly. And my dad before me. He was a moudy man.’
Vera grinned. ‘Eh, I haven’t heard that word for years! You’d get in the moudy man to clear your land of moles and pests.’
Percy nodded. ‘You wouldn’t recognize the house now. It’s all been tarted up. You’d never guess it was ever a working farm.’ A pause. ‘A chap called Heslop used to be the tenant farmer. Spent all his adult life there, struggling to make a living from the place. He only gave up when his wife couldn’t stand it any more and forced him to shift to the town. He died six months later. He’d be turning in his grave if he could see what they’d done to the place.’
‘You’ve been inside?’
‘Nigel Lucas had a party last Christmas and invited most of the village.’ He gave a wicked grin. ‘I think they were hoping the Carswells would show, but the major and his wife were down south visiting their daughter. So Nigel had to make do with the plebs.’
‘He’s a bit of a social climber, is he?’
‘Cash is no object,’ Percy said. ‘Susan says their kitchen cost more than a man’s wage for a year. But I don’t think that’s enough for Nigel. He’d like to get in with the county set. It’ll never happen, though. Round here you need to be born to it.’
‘How did he make all his money?’ Vera leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. She thought this was as happy as she got, digging around into the background of her suspects. Perhaps she was a bit of a historian too.
‘He had his own business. Burglar alarms. That sort of thing, I suppose. Sold it and made a fortune, apparently.’ Percy paused again. ‘Susan says he’s been accepted as a magistrate. She saw the letter when she was cleaning last week.’
Vera thought that figured. Nigel would see it as a first step to becoming established in the county. Besides, he’d love sitting on the bench and passing judgement on more lowly mortals. ‘What does Susan think of the wife? She seems a bonny thing. Younger than him?’
Percy considered. ‘She’s not that much younger. Not according to Susan. Well preserved.’
Vera thought Susan would probably know. She imagined the cleaner going through desk drawers when she had the place to herself, picking up birth dates and stray personal details. She’d be one to hoard information, loving it for its own sake.And isn’t that just what I do?
She looked across at Percy. ‘Did Susan pick up any useful facts about Patrick Randle, the house-sitter? She’d have been curious – a new man in the valley – but she might be a bit embarrassed to tell us, because she wasn’t supposed to go up into the flat. She wouldn’t want us to know she’d been prying. But she might have told you.’
For the first time Percy seemed uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair. ‘She means no harm.’
‘That’s not really an answer, is it, pet?’
The old man didn’t reply and Vera continued, ‘You know this place. Two men are dead. You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if you had any idea what might have caused it? Even if you only suspected?’
‘I don’t know anything about the murders,’ Percy said. ‘Really. I hate all this. The police in the meadow and the roadblock at the end of the lane, so I get stopped every time I just want a quick pint in The Lamb. If I knew owt useful, I’d tell you. I want everything back to normal.’
Vera nodded, satisfied at last.
She expected to find the station quiet, but Holly was still there. With a touch of guilt Vera suspected the officer had been waiting forher. If it’d been Joe, Vera would have taken him home, fed him something her hippy neighbours had left in her freezer, opened a beer. But she’d learned that Holly disliked that sort of approach, saw it almost as corrupting. So Vera took her to the canteen, bought coffee from one of the machines. That was about as informal as Holly was comfortable with. Their words seemed to rattle around the empty space.
‘So, Hol? How did you get on with Randle’s girlfriend?
‘She’d seen about the murder in the press. Of course she was upset. Although Becky was the one to end the relationship, I don’t think she saw the separation as permanent. She always thought there’d be a happy-ever-after ending.’
Vera heard the sarcasm, but ignored it. Holly could do with a bit of romance in her life. It might make her a tad less brittle.
‘If she still cared for the lad, why did she dump him?’
‘Because she thought he was keeping secrets from her. Maybe she thought if she threatened to dump him, it would jolt him into confiding in her. It didn’t work, though.’
Vera became more alert at that. Until then she’d been going through the motions, letting Holly know that she was taking her seriously. But now this was starting to get interesting. ‘Come on, Hol. Tell me more. What sort of secrets. Another woman?’
‘Nothing like that. At least I don’t think so. Apparently Patrick’s personality changed at about the time his mother took up with her new man. He became interested in the family history and started researching the past, digging around in the archives of the local paper. He got a bit paranoid about his university research too, talked about people stealing his data. I’m not sure what it was all about. But he sent Becky a text last week.’ Holly looked down at her notes. ‘Nearly fit to be your friend again. If you can forgive me.Which Becky took to mean that he’d finished whatever project had been taking up all his time, and he hoped it might be possible for them to get back together. That he might be prepared to tell her what had been going on.’
‘Did she reply?’ Vera’s coffee had been left to go cold.
‘She didn’t phone him. I’m not sure whether she texted.’
Vera tried to get her head around this. Of course the emotional affairs of two young people might have no relevance at all to the case, but Patrick’s obsession with secrecy struck her as significant. What could a young man from his background possibly have to hide? And where could Martin Benton fit in? She realized that it was starting to get dark outside.
‘Get on home.’ She made a little shooing gesture with her hands. ‘We’ve got a full day tomorrow and I can’t have you off your game. You’ve done brilliantly, Hol. Thanks.’ Then she smiled at the young woman’s confusion. It never did any harm to wrong-foot the team by giving a bit of praise. It occurred to Vera, watching Holly walk away to spend the night alone in her flat, that they had more in common than she liked to admit.She’dbeen spiky and defensive when she’d been a young officer, and though there were more women in the service now, Holly didn’t have it easy. No family around to support her. And it probably wasn’t her fault that she looked like something out of a fashion magazine, with legs up to her waist and American teeth. Holly left the canteen and Vera watched with a stab of sympathy. Then she thought she must be getting soft in her old age.
On the way back to her car she called into her office. On her desk was the brown Manila file she’d seen in Randle’s car and a little note from Joe:This is the file you were asking about. It was empty. No fingerprints except Randle’s. She thought that just about summed up the progress they were making with the case.
The next morning she woke very early. There was the cold grey light of just after dawn, but it was the noise of her phone that had dragged her from sleep. The landline. Everyone knew that her house had crap mobile reception. ‘Yes!’ She could feel the adrenaline racing through her heart, jolting her, scattering weird ideas in her brain. She thought she must sound as Percy had, when she’d rung his doorbell the afternoon before.
It was a voice she didn’t recognize and it took her a while to take in the words. ‘We think we’ve found the locus for the young man’s death.’
‘Where?’ Now she was fully conscious and aware of what was going on. She was already out of bed, the phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder, scrabbling to find a scrap of paper.
‘The vegetable garden of the big house. We didn’t look there yesterday and it was our first search this morning. There’s blood on the wooden rim of one of the seedbeds. Easy enough to miss, but one of my boys picked it up. I’ll bet you anything we’ll find that the soil on the victim’s shoes has traces of compost. There’s salad stuff growing in there, and some of the plants have been crushed.’
‘Thanks.’ Her mind was still racing and that had nothing to do with being wakened suddenly from a deep sleep. If Randle had been killed in the garden, why bother moving him? He’d be just as much hidden there as he’d been in the ditch. Then the thought came, sudden and urgent:It would help if we knew which of the victims died first.She realized the officer in charge of the search team was still on the end of the line. ‘Tell your people it’s my shout next time I see them in the pub.’
‘We’ll carry on looking. But I thought you’d want to know.’Chapter Twenty-One
Friday morning and Annie Redhead was counting the hours until her daughter’s release from prison. They’d had a phone call from Lizzie and had been told she’d be let out of the gaol mid-morning on Sunday. Phone calls were always tricky. The background noise and the money running out, people in the queue shouting for her to be quick. Annie had offered to pick Lizzie up: ‘If that’s all right. If you haven’t made any other plans.’ She’d become used to being careful what she said to Lizzie; always felt it was important not to make assumptions. After all, Lizzie was an adult now. She had to be allowed to make her own decisions. Annie imagined standing in the gloomy prison hall where she waited when she went to visit and seeing the small figure of Lizzie being led along the corridor. Looking like a shadow. In her daydream Lizzie was always delighted to see her and, when she emerged into the hall, lit up through the Victorian stained-glass windows, her face seemed to be shining.
Annie wasn’t sure whether she was looking forward to Lizzie’s release or dreading it. She’d left behind the social embarrassment of Lizzie’s imprisonment months ago. That no longer worried her. The court case had been in the papers and everyone had known about it. The only time Sam ever said anything positive about selling the restaurant was that he was glad they weren’t living in Kimmerston when the news came out. ‘I couldn’t bear it. Customers talking about it and falling quiet every time we got close. The pity.’
Of course their friends in Valley Farm had known that Lizzie was inside, that she’d been charged with grievous bodily harm, but they’d never really mentioned it. Not in front of Sam. They understood that he was a private man. Jan and Lorraine had come to her separately, saying much the same thing: ‘I’m really sorry. It must be a dreadful time for you. If ever you want to talk . . .’ But the last thing Annie wanted to talk about was Lizzie’s behaviour. She was happy to have everyone there when she needed some company, people to share a bottle of wine with, a bit of a party on a Friday night. Even Sam had appreciated that. But she didn’t want a heavy conversation or advice. They’d been through all that since Lizzie was tiny – with teachers, psychologists and social workers. None of it had helped. She thought Lizzie was damaged in some way, had been since she was a baby, and nobody could help her.
Occasionally Annie saw a mother with a grown-up daughter walking through the town. They’d have linked arms or be sharing a joke. Then she experienced a moment of intense jealousy, just as she supposed women who couldn’t have children felt when they saw a newborn in a pram. The pain of wanting something that would probably always be denied to them.
The great thing about having Lizzie in prison had been that they could stop worrying about her for a while. The relief of that had been immense. Like the bliss of chronic pain suddenly disappearing. Annie knew about chronic pain because of the arthritis in her knees. In prison their daughter was the authorities’ responsibility. Annie could go to bed at night knowing that Lizzie was safe, that there would be no frantic phone calls in the early hours demanding action. No mad dashes to A&E. But soon Lizzie would be out, and Annie’s deepest fear was that the stress and anxiety would return and they wouldn’t be able to handle them this time. They were too old. They’d become used to contentment, a wonderful boredom, and a return to the old way of surviving might break them.
The phone rang again just after Sam had driven away on his routine trip to the village to collect his paper.
‘Hello.’ Annie hadn’t recognized the number and her voice was sharp. It would be someone trying to sell insurance, a new boiler, loft insulation.
‘Mrs Redhead? This is Shirley Hewarth. I work for a charity called Hope North-East. It’s about your daughter.’
For a moment Annie didn’t answer. ‘What do you want?’
‘Just a chat.’ The woman’s voice was warm and calm. She sounded like all the other professionals who’d thought they could make a difference. ‘About Lizzie’s future. I saw her yesterday. Just a short prerelease visit. I can come to you, if you like. Later this morning.’
‘No!’ Annie didn’t want another stranger in the house, and Sam saw any visitor as an intruder. ‘I’ll come to you. Where are you?’ When the woman started describing the office and the pit-village where it was based, Annie interrupted her. ‘Yes, I know where that is.’ Because it was where she came from. She’d lived with her parents not very far from the charity’s office.
Annie didn’t tell Sam about the phone call or the appointment. They were both thinking that Lizzie would soon be out, but they hadn’t discussed it. Perhaps they were hoping some miracle had happened in the Victorian monstrosity where their daughter had been living for the last few months. That she’d emerge from the big wrought-iron gates gentler and more considerate.
When he walked into the kitchen with his newspaper under his arm, she was already dressed to go out.
‘You don’t mind, love, do you? I really need to escape the valley for a while.’
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ He put down the newspaper.
‘Nah, I might meet up with Jill. Have coffee. Lunch even. Do a bit of shopping.’ He nodded and didn’t ask any more questions. It felt strange lying to him. She didn’t think she’d ever done that before.
It was weird going back to Bebington. Weird because nothing had really changed. It had been a kind of ghost town since the pits had closed, and she hadn’t known it as very much different; there were still rows of houses with peeling paint and occasional boarded-up windows, the bony men sitting on doorsteps, listless, seeming only to wait for their next fix. In other parts of the country, and the county, the economy had peaked and troughed, but here there’d been nothing but depression. She’d have understood Lizzie’s anger and frustration if her daughter had been brought up in this town, but she’d been born when they were living at the farm. Her playground had been the valley. And even when Sam had given up the tenancy and they’d moved to Kimmerston, Lizzie had been loved and given everything she could possibly need.
Annie stood for a moment outside the Hope North-East office and tried to remember what used to be in the building. Suddenly she remembered: a little cafe. An old-fashioned greasy spoon, serving bacon stotties and strong tea. Her grandfather had come here sometimes to meet his pals. She pushed open the door and climbed the stairs to the office.
Three people were sitting at one of the small desks, having some sort of meeting. They had mugs of coffee in front of them. There was a skinny woman who looked middle-aged, but was probably in her early thirties. Lank hair and troubled eyes. A big guy with huge hands and tattoos. And Shirley. From first glance, Annie had realized this must be Shirley. It was the way she dressed and the way she was speaking. She was clearly the person in charge. She stood up. Seeing her close up, Annie thought she was older than she’d first guessed. Late fifties, early sixties. The make-up was discreet, but skilfully applied.
‘You must be Annie.’ Shirley held out her hand. ‘Just give me a moment to finish up here and we’ll find somewhere private to talk.’
There was a brief conversation with her colleagues about diary dates and fund-raising. The big man wandered off downstairs and the little woman returned to her own desk.
‘There’s an interview room downstairs,’ Shirley said. ‘We won’t be disturbed there. I’ll make us some coffee, shall I?’ She switched on the kettle, which stood on a tray on the floor, and spooned ground coffee into a cafetière. Annie had been expecting horrible supermarket own-brand instant and was surprised.
The interview room made Annie think of a prison cell. It was small and square with one high window giving very little light. It was comfortable enough – carpet on the floor, two armchairs, a light-wood coffee table between them – but it made Annie uneasy. It was a place where confessions, or confidences at least, would be expected.
Shirley poured coffee in silence, as if she had all the time in the world, and it was Annie who spoke first. ‘How was Lizzie when you saw her yesterday?’
‘Fine!’ That reassuring voice used by social workers everywhere. ‘Looking forward to seeing you both soon.’ A pause. ‘When I went, she’d just had a visit from a police officer. A detective sergeant. He was asking about the murders in Gilswick.’
‘Lizzie couldn’t have had anything to do with those!’
‘Of course she couldn’t. But I thought you’d want to know.’ There was a moment’s hesitation. ‘One of the victims worked here as a volunteer. We’re all rather shocked. We can’t understand how he came to be in Gilswick.’ The last sentence came out almost as a question.
‘I never met him!’ Annie was confused and anxious. She’d thought this interview would all be about Lizzie: where she would live and what work she might get. Now it seemed this woman was more intent on getting information about the murders than on helping her daughter. ‘I never met either of them. Why did the police think Lizzie could help?’ This was becoming the worst sort of nightmare. How could the police possibly link Lizzie to the killings? Did they think she and Sam might be responsible for the violence?
‘I’m sure they’re just exploring possibilities.’ Shirley smiled. ‘Previous offenders are always easy targets at the start of an inquiry.’ She paused for a beat. ‘The detective asked Lizzie about Jason Crow. Any idea why they might think he’s involved?’
‘Because it’s important that when Lizzie comes out she stays away from people who might get her into trouble again. I’m sure you understand that.’
Annie breathed deeply. She’d learned that it was important when you were dealing with professional do-gooders to keep calm. Otherwise they judged you. Wrote things likeanger-management problemsin their reports. Lizzie was always said to have an anger-management problem. ‘One of the reasons we moved back to Gilswick from Kimmerston was to put some distance between Lizzie and the crowd she was hanging around with before.’
‘Of course. So it must seem very distressing that the criminal activity has followed you to the country.’
‘It’s horrible,’ Annie said. It was starting to feel as if the room was shrinking, as if the air was being sucked out of it, so that she couldn’t breathe. She was wondering what excuse she might give for leaving. The woman sat between her and the door, and Annie measured up this distance to it with her eyes.
‘I wonder if it’s a good thing for Lizzie to return to a community where the police are investigating a double-murder.’ Shirley poured more coffee into both mugs, lifted the jug to offer milk. Annie was reminded of all the times she’d drunk coffee with Jan and Lorraine. Sitting in one of the smart houses in Valley Farm, passing on village gossip. Only nowtheywere the subject of all the gossip in Gilswick.
‘Better that Lizzie comes home with us than that she goes back to her old haunts in Kimmerston.’ Annie caught her breath. ‘Though of course that has to be her decision. She’s an adult.’
‘That’s what I think too.’ Shirley smiled with real warmth and Annie thought the woman was only doing her job; she had been overreacting. The business with the murders had made her panicky since she’d first heard about them, filling her head with all sorts of crazy notions. Shirley continued, ‘And I do think Lizzie would like to come back to you. At least to start with. I think she should be considering going back to college. Maybe the FE college locally to get her A levels, then who knows? She’s certainly bright enough for uni.’
‘She’s always hated the idea of studying.’
‘I think you might find that prison has changed her. Did you know she signed up for a couple of education classes in Sittingwell? She’s joined the writers’ group and in the short time she’s been attending she’s become a bit of a star. I don’t believe in the short, sharp shock, but being inside for a while certainly works for some people. It gives them time to sort out their priorities. To grow up a bit.’
‘Did she talk to you about what she might like to do?’ Annie was finding it hard to believe that this conversation between Shirley and her daughter had actually taken place. Allherattempts to discuss Lizzie’s future had always ended in silence or sulking. Slammed doors and disappearance. On the prison visits Annie hadn’t dared bring the subject up. She’d concentrated on being supportive.
‘Not in any detail, but I was wondering about the hospitality industry. Didn’t you and your husband once run a restaurant?’
‘Yes.’ She wanted to add:And Lizzie lost it for us, but that seemed petty, now that Lizzie might actually have a future. Annie was blown away by the sudden vision of Lizzie as anormaldaughter with a job and a home. A daughter she could chat with and introduce to her friends. A daughter with whom she could link arms and share a joke.
‘I was wondering if I might come and visit you all early next week.’ Shirley was pulling out a big diary from her bag. ‘See if we might start to put some plans in place.’
‘Oh yes!’ Annie thought that if Sam didn’t fancy meeting the woman he could go out in the morning, go into Kimmerston. She knew she shouldn’t build up her hopes for Lizzie’s future. She’d done that too many times before. But perhaps Shirley was right. Perhaps all Lizzie had needed was some time away. A kind of retreat from the world. Annie couldn’t understand her own initial dislike of the charity worker. How foolish she’d been!
‘So shall we say Monday morning at eleven o’clock?’ Shirley wrote a note in the diary and then looked up for Annie’s agreement. ‘That’ll give you a day to settle back together again. For you to get to know your daughter.’ Now she was writing on a little appointment card and she slid it across the table.
Out on the street Annie felt a ridiculous rush of optimism. Perhaps Lizzie had been changed by the shock of the court case and prison – the few months away from the dealers to get herself clean. The murders in the valley had nothing to do with them, after all. It was the act of a random lunatic. She’d seen occasional cases on the television news. Sick bastards riding down country roads with a shotgun, killing any strangers who got in their way. Glorying in the violence. The police always caught those people.
She drove back towards Gilswick with the car window open, listening to birdsong. Thinking that she would have to explain about Lizzie to Sam. They couldn’t put off talking about their daughter any longer.Chapter Twenty-Two
It was still early when Vera arrived at the big house. She’d phoned the station to set back the briefing for an hour and she’d demanded Billy’s presence at Gilswick Hall. He might be a randy old goat, but he was the most meticulous crime-scene manager she’d ever worked with. The officer in charge of the search team was new to her. He was a big bald-headed Scot called Peter MacBride and he was waiting for her by the front door of the Carswell house when she drove up. Getting out of the car, she heard a cuckoo and thought how rare that was these days. When she was a kid they listened out for them every year. She had a sudden sense of nature being knocked out of kilter. A heatwave in April, wasps out of season and the cuckoos disappearing. Two strangers killed in a place people thought of as paradise.
MacBride was apologetic. ‘Sorry it’s taken so long. It made sense to work our way from the house towards the road and the ditch where the body was found. The veggie patch is at the back, so we’ve only just got to that.’
‘You had an early start today.’
‘Aye, well, I’m a persistent bugger. It’s been eating away at me that we haven’t been able to find the murder scene for the young man. I got the team to assemble just before dawn, so we could make a prompt start at first light.’
Vera followed him round the side of the house. She’d looked out at the vegetable garden from the upstairs windows, but hadn’t ventured here. It was big and well tended, almost commercial in scale. Fruit bushes in a cage, strawberry plants under netting, rows of vegetables already starting to push through the soil. Everything labelled and almost weed-free. She wondered again if Patrick had been expected to work out here. Now that was even more relevant and she made a note to ask Joe to check with the house-sitting agency.
A row of cold-frames stood beyond the fruit cage. Solid wooden frames with the glass lids now removed. Inside mostly salad crops – radish, lettuce and spring onions. The lettuce was the cut-and-come-again variety and was ready for harvest. On the corner of the far edge of one frame a dark stain that could be blood.
‘Of course we’ll need a sample for DNA testing?’
He nodded to show that it was already being sorted. ‘And as soon as you’ve finished here, we’ll cover it and let the scientists do their thing.’
‘Lorna Dawson’s testing the soil from his shoes?’ Vera liked the man. His competence and lack of drama.
He nodded again. ‘I’ve been in touch and she says she’ll try to visit. It’s a long way from Aberdeen, though, and it depends what else she has on.’
Inside the frame the plants were crushed. ‘So what’s your theory?’ Vera had dozens of scenarios dancing inherbrain, but none of them made sense yet.
‘I think the victim was out here working. Someone came up behind him and hit him. He twisted as he fell into the frame and that’s how we have blood on that side of it.’
‘Well, I suppose that ties in with the injuries on the body.’ But Vera thought it didn’t tie in with anything else. They knew that Patrick had picked Benton up from the bus in Gilswick and had driven him back to the big house. There were two mugs in the kitchen in the flat, so they’d had tea together. Why would Patrick leave the older man alone to come out and do a spot of gardening? It didn’t make sense.
‘There were no defensive injuries.’ She was speaking almost to herself now. ‘What does that tell us?’
‘There’s a grass path almost all the way from the house.’ MacBride looked back towards the building. ‘If Randle was bending over the frame working, he might not have heard the killer approaching.’
Vera didn’t answer immediately. She was picturing the scene. Late afternoon. Warm.Forget about Benton for a while and focus on what was happening here.There had been no blood stains on Randle’s jersey or jacket, only on his shirt, so perhaps hehadbeen gardening. He’d taken off his jumper and jacket and put them on the ground close by. ‘Maybe.’ But why would he work in the garden when he had a guest – Benton – in the flat?
She straightened and paused, hoping to catch the sound of the cuckoo again, but all she could hear were woodpigeons. ‘It’s a bloody long way from here to the ditch by the road. The killer must have had access to a vehicle. It’d be struggle enough to get him to the drive.’ She wondered why the killer had bothered. If there’d only been one murder, she’d have understood it. It could have been an attempt to make the whole thing look like an accident. A hit-and-run. And that might explain why the jacket and jersey had been replaced. But the body in the flat was going to be found eventually and then there was no way the authorities wouldn’t link the two deaths. It all seemed too complicated. Too weird. Again she thought that the timing of the men’s deaths was the key to this. But she knew there was no way Paul Keating would be able to tell her which of the victims had died first.
She stretched and looked at her watch. She should get back to the station. In Kimmerston the troops would be waiting for the briefing. The sun was almost warm now. MacBride’s team were making their way in a line through the small orchard between the back of the house and the hill.
He followed her gaze. ‘Just in case someone came down to the house from the footpath that runs along the ridge. But we’ll be packing up by the end of the day.’
‘Aye, well, thank them. And thank you.’ They were almost at the house when she had another idea. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve come across a moth trap? Wooden or plastic contraption, with a funnel and a very bright bulb.’
‘Is that what they are? We left themin situ. This way.’ He led her down a beaten path through the trees that separated the house from the road. Sunlight slanted onto the patches of clear fell and the bright-green spears of bluebells. In some places the plants were in flower, giving the undergrowth a bluish sheen. Birdsong everywhere. She thought this was what had brought the people in the new development at the end of the track to live in the valley. They imagined it would always be like this.
‘Did you find anything else of interest here?’
‘Four sweetie wrappers. Unusual because they’re from a local manufacturer. Kimmerston Confectionery. Only sold in a few outlets. They do the old-fashioned sweets – black bullets, pear drops, sherbet lemons. All individually wrapped. No telling how long they’ve been here, though, and they could have blown in from the road. Or been eaten by Randle when he was setting up the traps.’
Vera didn’t say anything. She didn’t think Randle was the sort of chap who’d drop litter. And she knew she’d seen a bowl of the sweets recently, though she couldn’t for the life of her remember where.
MacBride stopped so suddenly that Vera almost walked into the back of him. By the side of the path there were two moth traps, set quite close to each other. Huge car batteries to power them. ‘They were full of insects,’ he said. ‘We didn’t know what to do with them.’
‘The traps will be on a timer,’ she said. ‘They’ll only be lit at night.’ The light would attract the insects, luring them into the funnel and the soft cardboard egg boxes below.
Vera lowered herself into a crouch, heard her knee joints cracking, then wondered what she was doing down here. She wouldn’t know a rare moth if it bit her on the nose. ‘Can you get the contents to an expert? The Hancock Museum will have someone. Or one of the unis. And we’ll need Fingerprints to look at the traps.’