Not a Very Nice Woman
Chapter 1 — The Cedars
‘A woman dead, you say?’ asked Inspector Graham Rase of his Sergeant, Cornelia Smith as she drove them through the midmorning traffic, back from their earlier appointment out of town.
‘Yes, a resident of the Cedars.’
‘Tell me again why we’re going there?’
‘This is the second death at the Cedars in a month, and so it flagged up.’
‘But it’s an old people’s home.’ He didn’t mean to be insensitive, but… ‘Have we any reason to think there’s foul play?’
Yet he knew the drill as well as she, and so prepared himself for the minor tragedy awaiting: the relatives, the friends, the carers accepting the inevitable.
‘Anyway,’ she added as they nearer the building, ‘the Cedars isn’t an old people’s home, it’s a trust run privately on behalf of the residents.’
Who all happen to be elderly, thought the Inspector, who knew the place and passed it often without ever being inside. Indeed so close was the building to the police station that as they approached he wondered whether he might have better advised his Sergeant to park back at base and accompany him there on foot. But his thoughts were interrupted as they joined the Crescent that shared the building’s name.
Cedars Crescent was a quiet road between two thoroughfares, as silent as a London square and dominated by the clutch of trees that gave it its name and which had resisted the development all around them to remain within the Crescent’s shallow arc. The trees drew the eye from the unassuming block of apartments opposite. The building was a smart one, and one which, even for all the times he must have passed it, Grey had not fully appreciated. Two storeys high excluding the ground floor and dominated by six large windows running along each, the building was perhaps the width overall of four large houses put together. It was of simple design but all the more elegant for that, and finished — for decorated was hardly the word — with jade marble panels linking each window with those above and beneath it and which over time had weathered to match the foliage of the trees across the road.
‘Not much activity outside,’ observed Grey (as he was commonly known) as the car turned off the Crescent and pulled in along the service-road that ran beside the property toward the carpark at the rear. Grey noticed then for the first time that there was no door at the building’s front.
‘No, here they all are,’ said Cori (for she too found her name rounded down with use) surprised at the hidden activity at the back of the building as she pulled in to park beside an ambulance and a marked police car.
‘Inspector,’ a Constable all in white overalls greeted them upon seeing their arrival. ‘She’s up on the second floor. The room’s open now, scenes of crime have finished.’
‘Not a routine visit then?’ Grey clambered out of the car with renewed vigour, Cori feeling the same twinge as she saw his brow furrow.
At the rear of the building, which Grey suspected was normally even more silent and secluded than the front, was a small fenced garden with benches, miniature trees and a burbling water feature; beside these a carpark not recently tarmacked, and hidden by a hedge a small unit of garages. The back of the apartment block was less decorated than the front, plain brick interrupted by intersecting ivy-vines of drainpipes; yet its startling features were the continuous strips of glass that ran horizontally along each level and seemed little more than sheltering for the linking walkways that extended within the back wall.
Only on the ground floor was this different, where between several different windows and doors and for half the floor’s length extended a conservatory so large it seemed a room in itself. It had patio doors that in warmer months would open up to join the lawn; though it was surely still too early in the year for this feature to be utilised. As for now it was closed to the elements, windows steamed, and so seemed occupied.
‘What do we have, Constable?’
‘The victim is a Mrs Stella Dunbar…’
‘ Ms, ’ interrupted a serious-looking woman meeting them at the door from the main building. ‘ Emm-Ess. She was always very strict on that point, that you shouldn’t judge a woman on her marital status. A point incidentally with which I happen to agree.’
‘Then I hope not to forget that in our dealings,’ answered Grey he hoped diplomatically.
‘Rachel Sowton, Duty Manager. You’d be the Inspector?’ She extended her hand to shake.
‘Yes, and this is Sergeant Smith.’
‘Do you want to go straight up?’ she offered without joy.
‘Thank you, but there’s just a few things I need to know first.’ He urged the Constable on go on.
‘ Ms Stella Dunbar, sir,’ he resumed warily. ‘Seventy-one years old and resident here for twenty-four years…’
‘Forty-seven when she arrived?’ thought Grey aloud. ‘She’d have been young then, for this place?’
The Duty Manager answered, ‘Stella was one of the existing residents who formed the Cedars Trust sixteen years ago. They were simply private flats before. At Fifty-five she’d have been no younger than the others in the agreement.’
‘You were here then?’
‘I was hired by the Trust at its formation. Surely we can sort these details out later, Inspector?’
‘Quite right. So,’ he turned back to his colleague, ‘when was Ms Dunbar last seen, and when was she found?’
But again it was the lady who answered,
‘Well I can tell you that, as it was I who found her.’
Grey saw her shudder saying this, evidently not entirely the controlled profession she was attempting to be even in these circumstances.
‘Then I hope you don’t mind us asking.’
But she quickly shook her head, saying, ‘I might also have been the last to see her alive: last night at around eight o’clock, returning to her room after the walk she liked to take around then.’
‘Though there’s talk of a visitor after that,’ added the Constable.
‘Yes, one of the first floor residents thought they saw a young girl running down the stairs and leaving the building at around ten, though I was on the stairs myself soon after so I think it must have been shortly before then.’
‘Do we know who this was?’
‘He thought she might have been a girl he’d seen here before, one of those from the Southney School who Stella tutored — she used to be a teacher, you see — but obviously they’re never here that late, straight after school being their normal slot.’
‘And did she had an appointment that afternoon?’
‘I don’t know. You may find a diary up there with times.’
‘And then she took a walk?’
‘Around seven or eight, yes. That was always her time to take the air you see, after her students had gone and she’d fixed her evening meal.’
‘Thank you, so what of this morning?’
‘One of the other residents went up to see her: Charlie Prove. I think they were supposed to meet downstairs for breakfast.’
‘Do you cook for the residents?’
‘It depends on their need, and the flats all have kitchens of course. Stella tended to look after herself, though often took communal breakfast. Anyway, there was no answer at her door when Charlie called looking for her, and so he came to find me — I have the master keys, you see. When I got there we could see the lights still on and the curtains closed behind the corridor windows. Obviously, I couldn’t know what we’d…’
‘When was this?
‘Around eight fifteen.’
‘And the curtains still draped struck you as odd?’
‘She was a very early riser, hated slouching around in her pyjamas, would always have the curtains thrown open. When we went into her rooms it was hard to see — the lights were on, but the corridor we’d come from was still bright with the sun, and at first I didn’t see her there…’
‘Don’t worry about that for now. We’ll need a statement from you of course; but it would be as well for us to see the flat for ourselves.’
‘Then I’ll show you up.’
Grey wasn’t going to argue with this level of cooperation, and they allowed themselves to be led briskly up through the building. At the top of the stairs they met white boiler-suited scenes of crime officers who moved aside to let the party pass, one of which then followed them along the narrow walkway that ran along half the length of the second floor, saying,
‘All clear, Inspector. You can move anything you like, though you’ll need to suit up.’
The Inspector nodded his regards, as in the cramped space outside the room he and Cori took from their sterile packaging white coverings and pulled them over clothes, shoes, head and hands.
‘You must have been here all morning,’ asked Grey in the form of a statement to the man already suited.
‘Only since nine. Truth be told, there wasn’t much to find. The rooms are mostly undisturbed, though we have the usual mass of fibres and fingerprints to go through.’
‘And it was murder?’ he asked quietly.
‘All indications suggest so,’ answered the forensics man in similarly understated tones.
‘And the method?’
‘Simple strangulation, sir.’
‘Thank you.’ Grey looked to Ms Sowton, who though stood some way back had still heard them and who for all her self-control again seemed to tremble.
She gestured, ‘This is the door.’
Pausing as Cori tied back her hair, Grey took in his surroundings before entering the second apartment they had met along the corridor. There may have been a third amid a mass of cheeseplants and indoor ferns and who-knew-what else that filled the final stretch of the corridor, growing up from their baskets and pots along the walls and the spaces in-between to almost block out the brilliant white light that flooded in from that broad strip-window.
‘You could have an artists’ studio up here,’ he suggested. ‘It’s a shame to waste this light on the corridor.’
‘Believe me, in the summer the heat can be too much,’ answered the Duty Manager. ‘Better for those things,’ she pointed at the cheeseplants, ‘than for us. Anyway, we get enough light still through the inner windows,’ (for frosted glass did indeed run along the inside wall lighting the apartments) ‘and the front of the building catches its fair share in the afternoons.’
Grey turned to the outer glass within its thin steel frames, to look down first over the garden and carpark, before raising his gaze to take in the skyline of their town.
‘Like Southney’s answer to Rear Window, eh sir?’ offered Cori now kitted out, and knowing how her Inspector’s mind worked.
‘Jimmy Stewart would have loved this view sure enough.’
‘I’m not sure that’s the happiest cinematic metaphor, given what you’re about to see.’
Thus suitably chastised by Ms Sowton, Grey turned to speak to her,
‘We will need to speak to you later. We could be in here a while though, so if there’s things you needed to be getting on with…’
‘Thank you. I could use a moment alone to clear my mind.’
And so leaving her facing the window whose view Grey had so admired, the detectives followed their Constable through the door and into the scene of what Grey had now had confirmed to him after all to be a very suspicious death.
Chapter 2 — Stella Dunbar
‘I’ve set things back for you as they were when we arrived, sir,’ began the Constable.
‘Good, and push the door closed, won’t you.’ Grey didn’t want someone who knew the victim hearing what they had to say. ‘And so this was exactly as it was when she was found?’
They entered the flat down a short passageway, leading off from which were the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and other spaces, and opening out to the main lounge and dining area filling the whole width of the flat at the front and which was dominated by the single huge window currently glowing faint red through the curtains with the daylight outside.
The nearest part of the room was set out as a lounge with three-piece suite, leading through to a half-dining table set against the wall below the large window. The room was lit by only a standard lamp by the easy chairs and a low-hanging lamp at the dining table end.
Grey instantly understood what Rachel Sowton had meant about the change of light from the corridor, as it was a full two seconds after entering the gloom of the flat before he saw that at the centre of the lounge area before them was a woman’s body, lying face down and with her head over her left arm.
‘The lights were on?’ Grey knew forensics would have had given themselves more light to work in.
‘Yes, sir, just like this.’
‘Thank you, get the curtains open now though will you, and turn the lights off.’ He hated rooms being like this in daytime — wonderfully atmospheric for reading or relaxing at night, but decadent and offensive to his work ethic by day when sunlight and fresh air ought to be let in and people should to be getting active. From what the Duty manager had said this was something like the victim’s feelings too.
The curtains opened, he could see she was dressed in dark-green silk pyjamas and dressing gown, with only the untouched grey hair that fell over her face to give any indication of age. The uniform colour of the dressing gown’s material, albeit deep and vivid, was in contrast to the fiendish patterns of the Chinese rug she appeared to have fallen onto and which must have cushioned that final fall to earth.
‘So what were the chain of events this morning?’ asked Grey as he circled the rug. ‘We weren’t told of any of this over the phone; only that a second death had flagged up on the computer.’
‘Ah yes.’ The Constable rifled through his notebook. ‘There was a Mr Tanner, died here nine weeks ago. We’ve double-checked with the Infirmary: there was nothing suspicious there, a heart attack at eighty-three. It all looks innocent enough.’
‘A grim relief. But not so in Ms Dunbar’s case evidently.’
Continued the Constable, ‘After she was first found and reported, the ambulancemen who came to collect her noticed the bruising on her neck, and made a second call to us. This must have been after you were first contacted.’
A besmocked figure poked their head in around the door, ‘You’ll let us know when we can take the body, sir?’
‘Could you turn her over a little?’ he asked instead. The man came in with another and gently rolled the lifeless form of the lady still clad in expensive silk.
Kneeling beside Cori, the pair of them looked closer, she observing,
‘Look, there’s the bruising to the neck. Her hair covered it at first.’
‘And she’d have been long dead by then?’ asked Grey of the scenes of crime men.
‘Yes, sir. The doctor estimated some time late last night or early this morning. He sends his apologies, by the way: he was called to an urgent operation at the Infirmary.’
‘That’s quite all right; tell him I anticipate his report as always. And no other signs of injury?’
‘Not that we could see, sir, but once we get her back to the lab…’
Grey nodded, and left them to their grim work, as standing to the sides of the removal he asked the Constable for whatever else he had to tell them. He himself began mooching around the lounge, Cori directed to do likewise in the dining area.
Began the Constable, ‘There are no signs of a break in: the door was found locked this morning and it, the lock and the frosted windows facing the corridor are all unmarked. The big window over the dining table does have a panel that opens quite wide outwards…’
‘Pre building regs,’ muttered Grey.
‘…but the building has a sheer front and you’d need to be Spiderman to get in that way. The windows are still locked anyway. Regards a burglary, there’s nothing in the flat that the Duty Manager or another of the victim’s friends could see as missing or having been disturbed, not even that little lot.’
His eyes directed Grey to a sizeable unit against the side wall at the dining table end of the room, and which might have been a dresser but for its fingerprint-dusted glass front. When Grey looked closer through the mess left by his forensic colleagues he saw it was being used as a display case for very many pieces of small silverware — teaspoons, mounted badges, snuff boxes — clearly a collecting passion of victim.
‘And did anyone hear anything last night?’
‘No reports so far.’
‘Thank you,’ he said to the man who went to keep watch outside.
‘There’s a diary, sir,’ said Cori by him at the dining table, where she now sat in the light from the window turning the small pages to find today. ‘More an appointments book than a journal,’ she summarised as the Inspector turned to her. ‘On the day she died there’s the initials “EN” then what looks like a time, four till six, and then a final initial, “ P ”.’
‘So that’s a student, arriving after school hours… and “ P ”?’
‘Paid, I’d guess.’
‘Of course,’ agreed Grey, ‘she wasn’t teaching them for nothing. Any other names?’
‘This “ EN ” and an “ SK ”, both recurring; and for this morning, “ RR, No Appointment. ”’
‘Are RR in there anywhere else?’
Cori looked, ‘Oh yes, three weeks ago, but this time with a set time.’
Grey thought aloud, ‘Today’s a weekday morning, so RR can’t be a child; and “No Appointment” — does that suggest that they’re someone she was going to see?’
But neither had an answer.
‘I wonder how much this place cost her?’ asked Grey.
‘If she was a professional all her life, probably not more than she could afford.’
He surveyed his surroundings in natural light, ‘It’s nice here, though, isn’t it.’ The place was cosy but well-appointed, the decorations few but well-made.
‘I don’t think they’re the poorest people who come to live here.’
‘No, quite. We could do with learning more about this Trust.’
‘It looks like she used the table as a desk, sir.’ Cori gestured to the neat piles of notebooks, pens and school textbooks sat along its edges.
‘” European History for Year Nine,”’ read Grey.
‘Senior school, your old Third Year,’ she clarified. ‘There’re a few different subjects here, and for different ages too.’
‘A good place to be creative,’ he murmured looking over the desk and out to the view of the trees beyond.
As Cori went to get up she saw something by her feet, leaning down to pick up an opened and empty envelope,
‘Return address in London,’ she noted. ‘Is that an auction house?’ she asked Grey, who also half-recognised the name,
‘Might be. No sign of the letter that came in it thought.’ He scanned the table. ‘I wonder where she kept her correspondence?’
‘There’s drawers in the display case.’
Indeed there were, two thin ones below the glass-fronted upper portion and above two wooden doors below. Grey tried them and all were locked.
‘Have you seen any keys? He asked.
‘Not yet. Have you looked down here?’ she asked, nodding to the lounge area?
‘Okay, you start on the other rooms.’
As she headed off he looked more closely at his surroundings. On the wall facing the display cabinet he saw a framed Certificate in Education, signed in the scrawled hand of a supervisor long dead and dated Nineteen Sixty-three. Moving back to the lounge area itself, with its the three-piece-suite and twenty-year-old television, he thought this area at least seemed a little more built for comfort. There were two paintings, both originals and placed where she would have been able to see them. Grey was no expert, but would have thought them early Twentieth Century, still representational but vivid in their use of colour. As well as these there were vases and other coloured glassware scattered around the room to brighten the place up.
Against one wall was a small electric fire. On its mantelpiece (which was there only for show, there being no flue behind it) was a small display of seashells and postcards — which under examination were all from friends staying at British or European seaside resorts, postmarked recently and saying no more than the usual holidaymaking fluff.
He sat down in the chair that looked most lived-in, hoping it might give him the victim’s perspective on things. Beside him was a small glass-fronted cupboard with more silver objet d’art, and on top of this a digital radio that he sensed had more use than the dusty-buttoned TV. Sure enough, when he rummaged through the small wooden-framed and woven-sided magazine rack at the other side the chair he found that week’s Radio Times folded over at yesterday’s radio listings.
Also in the woollen rack — the likes of which he hadn’t seen for decades — was the promised bundle of keys. Going back to the dining area, he first tried them in the lock of the glass doors to look again more clearly at the collection of silver trinkets, for a piece had earlier caught his eye through the fingerprint smudges. Opening the doors he saw it there gleaming: silver like the other items, but in this case the precious metal being merely the backing and decorated surrounds of an enamelled brooch bearing the portrait of a lady with her hair piled up, her ivory cheeks rouged, and her silk dress painted a blue that hadn’t faded with the years. Placed as the centrepiece of the collection it was exquisite, and bar a couple of statuettes the only piece here to bear a human likeness.
Being gentle so as not to rattle the contents on display above, he found the right keys to open the cabinet’s two thin drawers. In one he found only a clutch of bills, bank statements and other papers to be kept safe, and in the other draw more of the same but going back further.
Beneath the drawers were two carpentered doors, and unlocking these just as carefully he discovered some more educational materials.
They looking like they hadn’t been touched for a while, some bearing the logo not of a cedar but of an oak tree within a shield. Beside these were folders, which when he opened them were full of yellowed pages: draft proposals and minutes of meetings, typewritten and sometimes photocopied. The spine of one of these folders read TRUST, and he guessed they dated from the formation of the Cedars as a care home that Rachel Sowton had mentioned earlier. Beneath these was a still older-looking boxfile. He pulled the lot out to get at it, papers falling everywhere as he did so.
Cori moved methodically through the remaining rooms. The kitchen was small and perfectly formed, everything of good quality and neat and in its right place; similarly the bathroom, which when she opened the cabinet above the sink revealed nothing more medicinal than a toothbrush and floss.
‘Enjoying yourself?’ she asked, emerging finally from the bedroom. She knelt down beside him to help tidy the fallen papers.
‘Find anything in there?’ he asked.
‘No, the bedroom’s as neat and tidy as everywhere else. Oh, and the bed’s still made. Great painting on the wall though, all these colourful shapes blending to make a landscape. You’d love it.’
‘Yes, there’re some good ones in here too.’
‘One odd thing — I haven’t found any medication.’
‘Seventy-one, and not even a bottle of aspirin in the place?’
‘Perhaps she kept herself healthy.’
‘But we’d all have a few aches and pains by that age; Lord knows I’ve got enough already.’
‘Then it may be Rachel Sowton keeps all they need,’ she suddenly thought.
He had to admit that was a better answer.
Both kneeling over the yellowed papers to rearrange them at one side, they opened the boxfile to find not more of the same but instead some other education certificates, a silver pocket fob watch, and a small knitted teddybear.
‘Well, what do we make of these?’ asked Grey, squeezing the bear’s belly.
‘A blue bear,’ noted Cori, ‘and a man’s watch — they can’t have been hers.’
‘A son, and a father.’
‘Or a son and a husband.’
‘And why wasn’t this watch a part of the collection?’ Grey picked it up. Tied to it was a soft leather tag with an imprinted inscription. ‘Clever that, so they don’t harm the antique.’ He read, ‘” For All The Help You’ve Given Us. ” That’s a message of thanks, not of love.’
‘Perhaps from her students, or where she taught?’
‘But a man’s watch?’
‘Well, if they knew it was what she collected…’
‘So why then hide it away?’
‘You know, boss,’ said Cori thoughtfully, ‘there isn’t a single photograph in this apartment.’
‘We need to ask that Ms Sowton about family. I wonder why she didn’t keep a diary?’ he asked suddenly.
‘I don’t,’ answered Cori.
‘Nor do most, but I couldn’t live without mine. What do you do with all that stuff that you have nowhere else to say? If I had a table with that view I’d write and write.’ But he had lost her, soon getting back on track, ‘Have a look in that drawer. You’re good with bank statements.’
Cori took the contents to the table and studied the columns of numbers carefully,
‘Hmm. Her income wasn’t huge, but with her pension and savings she seems to have been covering a whole different set of outgoings.’
‘I wonder how this Cedars Trust works?’
‘Yes, and she was a trustee as well as a resident.’
‘Something else to ask Ms Sowton.’ Grey went through to the lounge and sat down on the sofa, Cori following him in and sitting in the other single chair, each taking care beyond that of a police officer at a murder scene not to tread on the rug that had been Stella Dunbar’s resting place, and looking to the chair between the radio and magazine rack as though her ghostly presence lingered there. Grey summarised:
‘Stella Dunbar: she had a student here yesterday evening, and then would have had her tea. She had her usual walk around eight, the Duty Manager seeing her home, then possibly had another visitor later that evening, they leaving around ten — a student who wouldn’t usually have been here that late.
‘Now the early estimate suggests she died a little after then…’
‘Though yet to be confirmed.’
‘Granted. Now this evening visitor, if it was her visitor, was a schoolgirl. The marks on the victim’s neck looked to me like she’d been strangled with bare hands, which takes strength. Look around us: not a thing out of place, glass everywhere and none of it even chipped, cupboards full of carefully organised trinkets which the killer would have had to put back absolutely right if they’d been knocked. No commotion was caused for alarm to have been raised in the building last night. Now the victim was of advanced years, but she looked of average size and weight to me, and clearly had her faculties intact. Whoever did this was bigger than her and stronger than her, could grip her in their hands and keep her there till she died. It all took place in this very spot, and she didn’t have a chance.’
Each sat sombrely, taking in the nightmare of what had occurred in that room the previous night.
‘You need to call the Superintendent, sir.’
‘I do. Can you find out what’s happening with the other residents? Hopefully someone’s been taking statements.’
They got up and walked to the corridor, where Cori again found herself beside the rampant flora and feeling the leathery leaves and soft fronds of the plants that brushed her as she stood even outside Stella Dunbar’s door,
‘These are lovely though, aren’t they?’ She moved in their direction as if enchanted, ‘It looks like there’s a third door through here.’ She felt something brush her cheek as she passed through the plants and tried the door. ‘Locked; and there’s a vine wrapped itself around the handle — it would have broken if anyone had been in. I wonder who’s room it is?’
‘We’ll add that to the list of things to ask our Duty Manager when we see her, wherever she may be.’
‘Probably downstairs, sir.’ The Constable, who had been called away for a while was now returned to his watch. ‘I suggested she keep people off the stairs while we took out the body.’
Mention of the residents reminded Grey of how few people they had seen within the building. This could have been through them keeping out of the officers’ way, or that life here was generally lived downstairs; however, Grey wasn’t sure even had there been the muffled sounds of people in their flats and the echo of feet on the stairs that the whispered magic spell of solitude that lived along these corridors would ever quite be dispelled.
‘She’ll be in the dayroom with the residents,’ the Constable continued. ‘That’s the big room on the ground floor, sir, with patio doors.’
As Cori headed in that way, Grey re-entered the flat and prepared to call his boss.
Chapter 3 — Derek Waldron
Superintendent Rose was a boss his investigative Inspector could get on with just so long as he took for granted that they each saw the job they both loved from utterly opposite directions. He had been a serving policeman himself before his promotions, yet the burdens of office denied him taking his officer’s part while also giving him a whole other set of things to worry about. These worries could come over as grouchiness; though thankfully something in the Superintendent’s nature meant that Grey knew never to take it personally, and so the pair of them got on fine.
‘We could have done with you there a bit earlier,’ the Superintendent mused.
‘Well we were out of town when the call came, and didn’t even know it was an emergency until we got here.’
‘A scene like that needs taking charge of.’
‘We’re on top of it, sir.’
‘Well make sure you don’t miss anything trying to catch up.’
‘Everything’s in hand.’
‘Is it? It doesn’t sound like you know what’s been happening there yet.’ (They had already been talking for fifteen minutes.)
‘There’s nothing obvious left for us to find — this isn’t an accident or a robbery gone wrong.’
‘Can’t be helped, I suppose. You’ll be there for the day now? And you’re sure it’s murder?’
‘As clear a set of finger bruises as I’ve seen, and big hands too. He didn’t give her a chance to get free.’
‘At an old people’s home — I ask you.’
The Superintendent’s enduring simple shock at the horror of crime was one of his best features, Grey considered.
‘A big man, strong grip… so does that rule out the residents? Could any of them have it in them?’
‘I haven’t seen them yet.’
‘Then get on to it! And give me an update later, call the house.’
As it turned out Grey had no worry over finding his own way to the dayroom, he being met at the foot of the stairs by a man of an age Grey guessed qualified him as a resident,
‘Hello, you must be the man in charge. I’m Derek Waldron, I’m on the first floor. So is it true, what’s being said, that Stella was killed?’
‘Hello. Inspector Rase.’ They shook. ‘It’s all far too early to say for certain. Now I must go and speak to my Sergeant.’
‘Oh, she’s in the dayroom where they’re taking the statements.’
‘You’ve given yours?’
‘First floor, you say? Was it you who saw the girl on the stairs?’
‘Yes, it was me. She was one of Stella’s students, though here far too late.’
‘How clearly did you see her?’
‘As clearly as I see you now — I was standing at my door, which is the one nearest the stairs on that floor.’
‘And you’ve put this in your statement?’
‘Yes… but there’s so much more that needs saying, isn’t there.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Who Stella was, what she was like. I don’t want that to be forgotten, for her to be just another listed crime.’
‘I can assure you that that won’t happen; and that Ms Dunbar’s background is precisely what I do need to know, and what I need to find your Duty Manager to ask her about.’
But again the man was ahead of him, ‘I really don’t know if now is the best time to be troubling her, Inspector.’ The man smiled in a way that didn’t seem inappropriate, ‘I don’t know what they saw up there this morning, she and Charlie, but I’ve never seen her so rattled. You know she and Stella were very close. She came back down just now after showing you up there and knocked a cup over, then ran to the kitchen with the pieces — I knew she was crying, and that’s quite unlike her.’
‘She seemed very together to me — I wouldn’t have let her take us back up there otherwise.’
‘And you don’t buy that, do you, in your job, every time someone tells you they’re fine?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘It’s not your fault. Rachel’s a very competent woman doing a difficult job. We say goodbye to a friend a year here. The rest of us can step back, be sad in our own way; but she has to manage things, deal with the families.’
‘All I’m suggesting is that you let me tell you anything you need to know this minute, and spare poor Rachel the ordeal. I’ve been here as long as Stella had, and am an original member of the Trust; the only one surviving I’ve just realised.’
But the man’s sad reflection didn’t daunt him for long, ‘Believe me, Inspector, there really isn’t a thing about this place I couldn’t tell you as well as anyone. We can talk in here,’ he said, pointing to an open ground floor door.
Calling to a passing colleague that this was where he’d be if anyone needed him, Grey followed the man inside.
‘Come on in. Rachel won’t mind us using her office, I’m sure,’ said Derek Waldron leading the Inspector through into what the latter wondered wouldn’t be better described as her flat, the desk and filing cabinets taking up half of the equivalent space of Stella’s dining table. Grey could even see a basket of the poor woman’s washing,
‘This is one of the flats?’ asked Grey. ‘Rachel Sowton lives here?’
‘An on-site warden is a condition of the agreement formed by the Trust. The place really wouldn’t run without her.’
They sat down at the desk, which had spare chairs beside it. No sooner had they settled than Waldron lamented,
‘It’s really is the worst thing you know, that pair being the ones to find her; especially Charlie, he’s so sensitive. Is it harsh of me to say that it would have been better for Rachel to have walked in there alone? Of course I’d put myself in either’s place any day. The way poor Charlie’s been carrying on, it was all we could do to calm him. Rachel had it worst, having to get him out of that apartment and downstairs before she could call the ambulance. Was the scene really very awful?’
‘They’re always bad enough.’
‘Do you get used to it?’
‘Not the worst of it, no.’
‘What would Charlie have seen?’
Grey tried to balance his description between what he could say, what would be upsetting in itself, and what was prosaic enough to at least clear up the most lurid of Waldron’s imaginings of what the discoverers were faced with:
‘They would have seen her lying there on the rug as they came in. No blood though, no mess; and it doesn’t seem as though they’d spotted the bruising on her neck then either. They would only have known the fact of her being dead, the scene itself held no other horror.’
‘“The fact of her being dead”, as if that wasn’t enough.’
The two men sat in silence a moment, but Grey had to press on,
‘I really will need to speak to Mr Prove also.’
‘Your Constables are already doing that, as well as talking to the other people who live here. Please let me spare him a second interview with yourself as I am for Rachel; before you speak to both of them in much better circumstances anon.’
Grey nodded, ‘He’s seeing a doctor?’
‘Yes, he came this morning.’
Grey would speak to him too.
‘You don’t think that the girls could be involved?’ Waldron asked suddenly.
‘The one who was here last night and her friend. Stella teaches them both. They loved her, you could see that. They would never do anything to hurt her.’
‘Do you have their names?’
‘No, I only see them, not speak to them.’
‘Do they have regular appointments? Do you see them on certain days?’
‘It’s hard to remember specific days, and they often arrive together or meet here afterward.’
‘You see them then?’
‘I see everyone walking along the drive from my window, hear them if the window’s open.’
‘Anyone last night after around eight?’
‘Oh, I’m afraid I had my curtains closed by then.’
‘But you did see someone inside the building. So why were you out of your room at ten o’clock?
‘A carton of milk — I like to make a cup of tea first thing, but noticed I’d none in my own kitchen, so…’
‘…you borrowed one from downstairs?’
‘There’s no need to look at me like that, we all pay to be here, and not a small amount either — the kitchens are communal.’
‘And you saw no one else?’
‘On the stairs, or anywhere?’
‘No, I don’t think I did.’
Holmesian logic time: ‘So, would you see everyone who went up or down the stairs?’
‘No — I only happened to be at my door at that moment.’
‘So it wasn’t that the girl was the only one on the staircase that evening, she just happened to be the only one you saw.’
‘What about footsteps — would you hear anyone going up or down?’
‘In the background maybe, but not that I’d notice.’
‘Even at ten, or later? Would the residents have gone to bed by then?’
‘Most of them around then possibly; but there could be Rachel or one of the nurses checking up on one of them at any hour.’
‘When you saw the girl, did she see you?’
‘Yes, I surprised her by being there. I came out the door just as she appeared on the landing.’
‘Long dark hair, very pale.’
‘How did she seem?’
‘Startled, and a little sad maybe. I thought it might have just been me surprising her, but before I could apologise she was carrying on her way down. I thought I’d check with Stella at breakfast that everything was okay. Perhaps I should have gone straight up? I might have helped…’
‘So were you part of this breakfast meeting with Charlie Prove?’
‘There might not have been a meeting as such, we would often just see each other if we were down for breakfast.’
‘But you weren’t in the party that went looking for Stella?’
‘No. Truth be told, I only hoped she might have been down there; I wasn’t waiting at their table. If she and Charlie had arranged to meet then I know not what for.’
‘So did the pair of them often meet to talk privately?’
‘If they wanted to talk I let them.’
‘Let me put it another way: did they have anything private to talk about?’
‘Secrets between themselves, you mean? There was a connection but not in the way you may be inferring, Inspector. Charlie… had a very emotional life. Stella was kind of like his keeper, though in a totally non-possessive sense. Oh, I’m not explaining this well.’
‘Stella has no secrets now, Mr Waldron.’
‘It was she who brought him here originally: found him a flat, settled him in and introduced us all, took care to make him involved in everything going on here, for he was terrible shy when he arrived.’
‘So they knew each other before Cedars?’
‘Yes, but how well I couldn’t tell you.’
‘But enough to want to help him.’
‘Make no mistake, Inspector, there was emotional care going on. She obviously knew something of his former life.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘Well, I know so little myself that I don’t know if saying it wouldn’t muddy the waters.’
‘Go on, we can sort out the details.’
‘He had a daughter who died, was killed I believe.’
‘Yes, that would do it.’
‘But it wasn’t just that: I think the daughter must have died on the estate they lived on, as Charlie couldn’t bear to go back there.’
Grey’s heart sank, ‘One of the Hills estates?’
The man nodded, ‘That’s half the reason Stella bought him here; and I’ve often wondered if she wasn’t paying at least some of his way, for I don’t imagine he’s ever been a rich man.’
‘When was all this?’
‘Not long after we’d formed the Trust, so maybe fifteen years ago?’
‘We can look into it.’ Grey made a mental note to set his support staff the task. ‘Meanwhile, I could do with learning a bit about your Trust.’
‘Well our solicitor, Mrs Rossiter, would your man there; but in principle, it’s formed by the residents for the residents.’
‘And how did it come about?’
‘Well, if you go back about, oh sixteen years now, several of those of us who owned flats back then found we were of similar ages. Some of us were getting on a bit, others would be in the not-too-distant future, and we found we wanted to have a bit more security. Some flats were standing empty, with young people looking to newer developments in town, and the place was beginning to feel its age a bit, so to speak. None of us wanted to leave for care homes in the future, you see, and so we spoke with the building’s owners, who were fine with our plans so long as no major structural work was done. We agreed to form a trust and each put in fifteen thousand pounds, and then another five thousand a year (more if the care they needed increased); which covered the deposit for a mortgage on two flats on the ground floor — always the first to empty, don’t you find? — and the salary for a permanent monitor-warden-duty manager, call them what you will, to mother us and be there any time of day and night. We also pay a women to cook, and for a couple of orderlies. We also built the dayroom at the back, which was our biggest success.’
‘So this is the first flat, and the second?’
‘That’s now a laundry and kitchen for those who can’t or don’t want to cook for themselves.’
‘So who runs things?’
‘The Trust, as a committee. Any resident can join informally, but the big decisions are taken by those who’ve been here over five years.’
‘And back at the start, were their any residents who didn’t want to join?’
‘A couple, yes, though it made no difference to them so long as they didn’t mind living among an ageing community.’
‘No noses put out of joint?’
‘No, in fact the last only left a couple of years back. You couldn’t meet a nicer fellow, he just didn’t want the engagement. He travelled a lot, and left for good for Australia.’
‘But new residents?’
‘New residents have to be approved by the Committee.’
‘And the building’s owners?’
‘They’re glad of us — empty rooms left unheated and uncared for are bad for buildings, but we’ve been full these last years.’
Just then something stuck in Grey’s recent memory, ‘But you’re not full, are you… unless there’s someone living under all that undergrowth at the end of the second floor corridor?’
The man considered his answer before delivering it, ‘You’re going to hear some things said about Stella that won’t always paint her in the best light. Don’t misunderstand her: most of what she did she did for the right reasons, like how she cared for Charlie; but I did wonder if a part of why she cared for him when no one else did was because at some point in her life no one had cared for her.’
‘The flat, Mr Waldron.’
‘You’re right, that end-flat is empty, has been since Mrs Cuthbert went into hospital a year ago, God rest her. When she first moved in, back before the Trust this was, Stella lived on the first floor next door to me. I became friendly with another fellow along that corridor, and we’d often be going back and forth to each other’s places for drinks and for company, treating the corridor as public space. Now don’t forget, these were private flats back then; and I think Stella thought there was just too much going on outside her door.
‘And so when her current flat… oh no, there’s nothing current about it is there.’
‘Don’t worry, go on.’
‘ When her flat on the second floor became available, she went through the whole house-buying and moving process just to be higher up in the building, and tucked in a corner where only one other resident would ever need to walk past: Mrs Cuthbert, who did nothing more distracting that listen to Radio 3 and keep pot plants.’
‘Did Mrs Cuthbert later became a trustee?’
‘A stalwart — if the history of this place were ever written she’d have a whole chapter.’
‘And when she died?’
‘As I say, this may not show people in the best…’
‘I can say it now — Stella used every trick in the book to delay the clearing out of the flat and putting it up for resale. I think it scared her that she’d get the tenant from hell up there, despite it being our decision who was let in. Anyway, it rumbled on for months, and recently we’d just given up mentioning it in Committee meetings. The fact that the Trust was in profit even without that flat’s five thousand a year income allowed us to leave it as the elephant in the room. Stella said she’d look after the plants meanwhile, which we all knew meant that Rachel would look after them. Well, you’ve seen them yourself, those plants just grew and grew: God, it’s like The Drowned World up there, what with Rachel watering them and the sunlight they get in that corridor. We’d have needed a gardener to remove them eventually. In fact, I could get on and arrange it now; or at least when you’re finished up there.’
‘What were her tricks?’
‘How did Stella delay? I need to learn this side of her.’
‘She used the pretext of some letter not being received back from Mrs Cuthbert’s family. You see when a resident dies the Trust instructs Mrs Rossiter, our solicitor, to help the families with flat resale and the disposal of assets. To not hear back from a family usually means she would proceed as usual and the flat’s profits passed on to the beneficiaries; there’s even a proviso in our contracts automatically authorising this: After all, it isn’t as if someone inheriting a flat here could just move in if they weren’t suitable…’
‘I. e. not of retirement age?’
‘And other considerations. Even worse, they might try and sell the flat quickly to someone similarly unfitting. And this isn’t just snobbishness, Inspector: a lot of our residents are old and need a calm, controlled environment. There’s plenty of other places someone young and loud and brash would be happier living. There’s also the fact that we often have a waiting list, and so can make a very good sale for the family.’
‘While also bringing someone in who you’ve already vetted?’
‘Exactly. Everyone wins.’
‘But not this time?’
‘Stella insisted we hear back from Mrs Cuthbert’s family authorising Mrs Rossiter to sell the flat for them; even when she knew as well as any of us that Mrs Cuthbert’s relations were quite distant and hadn’t visited her for years, nor appeared to be making any effort to dispose of the property themselves.’
‘This caused a deadlock?’
‘We couldn’t even announce the vacancy to a couple who’d been waiting for two years.’
‘Stella knew who’d be moving in?’
‘Yes, we’d already met them; lovely people.’
‘So Stella’s response was… irrational, would you say?’
‘I prefer to think of it as a defence mechanism, an automatic response to protect herself, perhaps she not even knowing what from.’
‘Yes, a knee-jerk fear that new is worse than old, that transition devalues. She could have loved having the new couple as neighbours for all she knew; at least with Mr Tanner’s place falling vacant since then we’ve been able to offer them a place at last.’
‘But the Cuthbert flat..?’
‘I think the situation would have resolved itself in time.’
‘And how would it have ended?’
‘We’d have had to face her down eventually, put it to a vote.’
‘So you were a democracy, you all had equal influence?’
‘There’s influence and influence.’
‘And did she often ride roughshod over the rest of you?’
‘Harsh terms again, Inspector,’ but the man was resigned now to telling it as it was. ‘I’d say she had a certain presence on the Committee; over Rachel too, for she pretty much ran things where she was concerned. Stella was very much more than just a member of the Trust, more like a chairman of the board, with Rachel her manager.’
‘Thank you. I know these aren’t happy questions.’
‘I suppose you have to know; but make no mistake, Inspector: Stella was a force for good, don’t judge her just on this example.’
There was so much Grey needed to know that he wasn’t sure what to ask next,
‘Now you mentioned the girls she tutored, but did she have any other visitors: family, friends, people we need to let know?’
‘No, mostly just her students.’
‘We were her friends, we have a very close-knit social group.’
‘I can imagine. And she’d been a teacher, I believe? Any contact from those days?’
‘Not that I recall.’
‘And so,’ he asked again, ‘what about family?’
The man who’d seemed so helpful was going reticent, ‘I knew you’d ask me about that area, and I knew I wouldn’t know what to tell.’
‘She never liked to talk of her life before Cedars.’
The man seemed to be holding himself together tightly as he said this.
‘Mr Waldron, you’ve trusted me so far; now trust me with this.’
The man stayed silent.
‘Then tell me only what you know of her story, like you did with Charlie’s, for us to sort out.’
But Derek Waldron had slipped into his own defensive mode, perhaps in guilt at what he’d already told,
‘Stella worked hard all her days, educated young minds, paid her own way — and how many can say that in these times? She lived among us happily for decades, was a member of the Trust, was active in the running of the Cedars, was loved and trusted by all she knew, by those she lived with and those who she tutored in the afternoons and whose careers she inestimably brightened. A faultless life, wouldn’t you say? And I for one was proud to know her.’
The picture now being painted was mere hagiography with none of the details Grey needed, interesting only in what it left out: no mention of a boy for the blue bear or of a man for the pocket watch. Listening to this, Grey realised he’d made a mistake talking to a friend of the victim so soon, and who despite initial appearances was clearly not handling his loss any better than those he was seeking to protect were handling theirs.
At the sound of the flat door opening Waldron gathered himself, as if knowing he would soon be saved,
‘Inspector. You began calling her Stella back there, not Ms Dunbar. I think she’d have wanted you to call her that, she did with her closest friends, and there’ll be none closer than you by the end.’
With Grey stunned by this utterance, the conversation had come to a natural pause as Rachel Sowton walked it, her self-control resumed and seemingly unperturbed at seeing the men sat around her living quarters.
‘Rachel, I’ve explained to the Inspector…’ began the still quaking Waldron, but she spoke across him,
‘Inspector, could we take the air? I need a cigarette.’
Chapter 4 — Rachel Sowton
‘So you came in to her room…’
‘And there she was before us, on the Chinese mat, just as you saw her.’
Taking the air in fact involved a walk to the shops, the Duty Manager having identified an item missing from the kitchen’s stores,
‘Some of the oldest residents are of a generation where fresh oranges are still a treat — can you believe that? If I’m honest I’m just glad to get away from that place for a while. Will we need to hurry back?’
Grey wasn’t sure they did, provided she kept answering his questions,
‘And then I called you, or rather the emergency services.’
‘And nothing else? No reaction?’
She smiled a weary smile, ‘I expect I’ve found half of those who’ve died there since taking on this job.’
‘And what of Ms Dunbar’s friend, this Mr Prove?’
‘Charlie is a very sensitive man, Inspector. I left him in the dayroom with the others, being comforted by friends.’
‘So, he did respond?’
‘Really quite dramatically, yes.’
‘But not yourself?’
‘I’ve told you, this is part of my role.’
‘What, finding bodies? Even we’re not used to that.’
‘You grow necessarily hard to it. People come to the Cedars for comfort and safety when they may be old and frail and nearing their end. You see a person every day full of life and light, but know that they could go at any time, and that it may be you to find them.’
‘And finding Ms Dunbar was no different?’
The Duty Manager paused on the pavement, ‘Stella Dunbar was as fine a woman, as fine a person as I have known. I doubt if there’s another left in the world I trust as much as I did her. Now if you have any more-practical questions..?’
Practical was good, practical was exactly what he needed. As they got going again, he asked,
‘So have you already contacted next of kin? You know we’ll need to talk to them.’
‘I would have done that as soon as I’d called you, but in this case it hasn’t been so easy.’
Fears of a stonewalling similar to Derek Waldron’s on the issue were unfounded, as she offered copious information albeit none of it what he needed,
‘Of course we keep a register of next of kin, updated twice a year, given the situation with some resident’s frailty as I’ve described; but Stella always left her space blank.’
‘So she had no family?’
‘It wasn’t even just that… it was as if in leaving the space empty she was denying even the question of family, not even admitting if she did or didn’t have any. She was telling us we had no right to ask.’
‘Do many others choose to do this?’
‘Asking them to fill in the register isn’t an act of choice more than one of compulsion, an unwritten rule of their agreement.’
‘So what of Mrs Cuthbert? You had trouble contacting her relatives.’
‘Ah, now she did had a relative in the register, only one who couldn’t be bothered to ever reply to the letters we sent them.’
‘They might have moved away?’
‘The might have, or might not have.’
‘You don’t seem shocked.’
‘The Trust have paid for funerals before.’
‘So Ms Dunbar was unique in this not answering?’
‘Yes and no: obviously some don’t have family, have no name to put down if they wanted to, but then that is an act of sadness which I note and then don’t ask of again.’
‘But when Ms Dunbar didn’t fill the register in, it wasn’t this same sadness you felt?’
‘No, more a seriousness, a considered refusal to answer; which if it was simply that she had no relations, then why not say?’
‘So, residents without relations, what happens to their flats after..?’
‘We have the residents make wills with Mrs Rossiter, or at least inform her where theirs are lodged if they have their own solicitor.’
‘So you have somewhere to send the proceeds of the Cuthbert flat?’
‘Yes. I wonder if her relatives will respond more positively to a cheque?’
Grey smiled at this, while again impressed at how tightly the Trust had these matters tied up; but he hadn’t time to linger on the thought as, unlike with Derek Waldron, Rachel Sowton’s answers were coming thick and fast,
‘Stella always said to me at register time, “Rachel, if you love me do this for me and let me leave it blank — If I fall ill I’ll settle my own medical bills, if I die then sell my flat and put the money to the extensions.”’
‘We had plans to expand, to build four new flats where those old garages are — no one uses them hardly now — and then there’s the age-old issue of fitting a lift, though it’s so difficult in an old building like this… Anyway, I think these promises for the future were Stella’s way of making up for, well, of course you wouldn’t know…’
‘For not letting new residents into Mrs Cuthbert’s rooms next door to her?’
‘Derek’s told you about that then? Yes, it was as though she was saying, My caprices may cost you money now, but you’ll make a killing out of me once I’m dead. Oh my, what have I just said.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s the questions I’m asking, don’t feel bad.’
He didn’t tell her she had just given him his first motive for the murder. But as they were on the subject,
‘I’m sorry to ask, but someone needs to answer this: can you think of anyone who’d want to harm Stella, even ague with her; anyone she’d fallen out with, perhaps another resident?’
The questions felt absurd even as he asked it and she had no clear answer. By now they had reached the shops in the High Street, and he waited for her outside the grocers. When she returned he tried safer ground,
‘Got everything you wanted?’
‘Could you hold these?’
He took the small bag of fruit to leave her hands free to light another cigarette from a fresh pack.
‘Thanks. I can’t even smoke in my room now, you know. It drives me potty.’
Although the kind of woman Grey guessed it would be hard to do anything chivalrous for, she didn’t think to ask for the grocery bag back and nor did he offer it, glad to do even the smallest thing for her at such a trying time,
‘If you don’t mind a couple more questions…’
‘These might seem odd in the circumstances, but you knew her routine and so might be the one to answer them: what time would she close the curtains, put her pyjamas on?’
‘No, Inspector, those are excellent questions, the very best kind. I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing myself; only the answers don’t add up. I don’t want to go back yet — sit with me?’
Just before they reached the Cedars was a bench that looked across to the trees that gave the building its name. Placed there with the oranges between them, she continued,
‘Tell me, Inspector: I wish I’d thought to look at the time, but was her bed disturbed? Had she been in it yet that evening?’
‘Undisturbed,’ he recalled Cori saying.
‘Then we’re looking at a very narrow window, but at the wrong time.’
‘Stella was one of those for whom late nights weren’t a pleasure but a chore — after a certain time she would only start worrying about how tired she’d be the next morning, and she loved her mornings.’
‘So, there was no downstairs entertainments on that evening as there would be at weekends — we bring in singers and such, the residents love it — nor did she come down to watch any television with the others, despite there being a documentary on that I’d thought would be right up her street. Indeed, I believe my sighting of her coming back from her walk at eight is still the last time anyone saw her that night.’
‘So, I know from times I’ve called on her by evening, that if she knew she was staying in and wasn’t expecting any visitors then you could find her relaxing in her nightclothes at any time after her walk.’
‘So she could have been dressed like that from eight?’
‘Yes; and with it being a dull night, most likely closed the curtains at the same time. But…’ and an air or expectation hung over the pause, ‘…on such a lazy evening she wouldn’t be in bed any later than half-nine.’
‘She’d go to sleep so early?’
‘Maybe not to sleep, but by that time she’d be reading in bed or listening to the radio there.’
‘So to be caught dressed like that, but with her bed still undisturbed…’
‘What time to you think… it occurred?’
‘The doctor can’t say for certain yet.’
‘But you’re thinking later rather than earlier?’
Grey nodded, wondered momentarily who was running this investigation; as she continued,
‘In which case, why had Stella gone up to spend the evening in her room, put on her pyjamas to relax, but then not gone to bed? What was keeping her up till, well, who knows how late? And that’s not all.’
Grey hoped this wasn’t going to get complicated.
‘Now the documentary almost everyone was watching downstairs finished at ten, and so for the next while the place would have been alive with people going up to bed, and with the orderlies checking on people after that. That would push us toward eleven o’clock before anyone could have hoped to have gotten up and down those stairs without being seen.’
There was another option, which Grey resisted offering but knew he had to,
‘Forgive me, but you’re assuming the person on the stairs was someone a person wouldn’t expect to see there…’
‘One of us? Do such a thing? Unthinkable.’ Rachel bridled on the bench, Grey fearing she was about to get up and end their talk.
‘Is it so unthinkable?’ He trod gently, ‘She appears to have let them in… you saw for yourself that her door and windows had not been damaged the night before…’
She answered calmly, ‘Inspector, you want me to countenance the possibility that one of our residents or staff, one of my friends, performed this act? Accept that community spirit has broken down to that degree even in such a building as ours? And you think that that’s a world I can bear to imagine living in?’
She summarised, ‘Now, something had kept Stella in her room last night, had kept her up later than usual; someone — even if someone she knew — got into her room and out again without being seen at the busiest time of the night, as I cannot believe she wouldn’t have at least been in bed by the time the building would have quietened down. Something earlier that evening — possibly involving her student who Derek saw on the stairs a little before — must have already disturbed her enough to keep her up at least a good hour later than she would have expected. And that’s what we need you to find out, Inspector; and I can’t help you.’
‘Why?’ he asked; to her bewilderment,
‘Because I wasn’t there.’
Once again it was brought home to Grey how out of the loop he was with this case, when he hadn’t even seen people’s statements of where they were the previous night.
‘You’ve told all this to one of the officers in the dayroom?’
‘Some of it.’
‘So tell me too.’
‘I get three evenings off a week — the orderlies are there, and I keep my mobile on.’
The spare nature of that answer left Grey awash with new questions for her; but he also knew he had much to get back to the Cedars to sort out,
‘Ms Sowton, I need to ask one last big question: you say she wouldn’t have changed into her nightclothes had she been expecting visitors…’
‘Ah, but you’re wondering if there aren’t certain visitors for whom it’s a positive advantage to have changed into your nightclothes for?’
Her candour relieved the tension from the question.
‘It’s good of you to grant our residents the possibility of a sex life, Inspector. So few do, especially the families. The old are as entitled to romance as anyone else in the world — in my time we’ve had four marriages and who knows how many affairs.’
‘And Ms Dunbar?’
‘Stella was not one of them.’
She paused before answering, ‘I’m not going to claim to be the one who knew her best, though I’ve as good a claim as any for the years I’ve worked here; but we’re in and out of their rooms every day, and so there’s no way that if something was going on that we wouldn’t know about it.’
‘So, to the best of your knowledge…’
‘To the best of my knowledge. Now, before they start to miss me…’
The pair rose for the short walk back, Grey looking to the trees,
‘I can see why she’d want to be up early, waking to a view like that.’
‘She was early to bed and early to rise, always down for breakfast by eight.’
‘Hence Mr Prove’s concern at her tardiness?’
‘Yes. She hadn’t had a job to get up for for years, but had never got into the habit of lying in. Some people can’t, even when they’ve earned the right. She always called morning the best part of the day, when the light was brightest and her mind the clearest and she could get the most done. She did like a nap in the afternoons though, before her students came.’
‘So what did she spend her mornings doing?’
‘I’m not sure; she would be in her room though mostly — reading, writing perhaps? Preparing for lessons, maybe just thinking. Some of our residents can spend a happy half-day in their heads, you know, Inspector: they think about their children when they were young, the jobs they had, family holidays; like in that poem.’
‘ The Old Fools.’
‘Yes, although I wouldn’t go with the title. They have their breakfast, lodge themselves in a wicker chair in the dayroom, and then they’re off to Weston forty years ago.’
‘Was Stella… I mean Ms Dunbar…’
‘It’s okay,’ she smiled, ‘I heard Charlie ask you to call her by her first name. I agree, you need to be her friend, you need to earn her trust.’
‘I’ll try and remember,’ he smiled. ‘So, you were saying?’
‘Of course. Well, Stella wasn’t a dreamer in the absent-minded sense, she was still too keen-witted for that; but I bet she had a lot of history to dip into when she wanted to… if she wanted to.’
They had reached the front of the Cedars, Rachel Sowton looking up to the top floor and saying,
‘That was her window. In the summer she’ll… she’d keep her curtains open all evening watching it go dark.’
‘You get to know a lot about your residents?’
‘More than some of my lovers. But then who ever really knows anyone when then love them?’
‘And what did you know of Stella?’
She looked back down to the Inspector, ‘Even those who knew her didn’t know her. There are decades unaccounted for. Come on.’
She led him along the service road to the doors at the back at the building.
‘You know, I don’t know who’ll run this place now,’ she smiled, already able to remember her dead friend.
‘She sounds a natural leader.’
‘Perhaps, though not in a heavy-handed way, more as a guiding light. She’d let you know when things displeased her. God, I’ll miss her.’
‘She leaves an impression.’
‘She leaves a mystery, Inspector. Now you’re her last best friend, you find it out.’
‘You’ve been very honest.’
‘So have you.’
And with that she entered her rooms, not to be followed.
Chapter 5 — Charlie Prove
As Grey mulled over those last words of Rachel Sowton’s, he remembered she admitting overhearing at least something of his conversation with Derek Waldron, and Derek’s talk of Grey’s knowing Stella better than anyone by the end of his investigation. It was almost as though these people who’d lived and worked with her for sixteen years — longer in Derek’s case — even after all this time needed an outsider to come in and explain their friend to them. That this was on the occasion of that friend’s demise seemed doubly sad; yet perhaps it could not have been any other way, and that as long as she retained that sharp and organized mind Ms Stella Dunbar would have held her secrets safe and undiscoverable. That there was anything extra to find out about her was only confirmed in the manner of her death, that someone somewhere hated something about her so lividly to want to end her days by crushing her neck in their hands; and perhaps also in the over-orderly manner of her life, the total absence of history, and in the little blue bear and man’s pocket watch buried so deeply within her personal possessions.
As Rachel Sowton had left through the door to her flat so Sergeant Smith now exited from the one beside it and which led to the dayroom; or rather came out only far enough to gesture to her boss to join her inside,
‘I didn’t think you were ever coming back.’
‘How are things in there?’ he asked.
‘Interesting, but not very much use to us, I’m afraid.’
‘What about Charlie Prove? Is he in there?’
‘That’s the worst news, sir: the doctor’s been back and has had to sedate him — he won’t be available to speak to till the morning.’
‘That is a pain. So,’ whispered Grey as they approached the dayroom’s entrance, ‘any contenders?’
‘But the view when they reached the slid-back double-doors answered the question for him, as he cast his eye not over the collection of aging dockers and brooding Suez veterans his imagination was throwing up as candidates for the heinous crime; but instead the kind of gentle, aged folk that might be suggested by their being able to afford to spend the autumn of their years in such comfortable surroundings. Indeed, the only pair of hands sturdy enough to have applied that hold to Stella Dunbar’s neck were owned by a particularly well-developed orderly who moved among the scattered chairs. The room, glass-walled and — roofed and cantilever-blinded was newer than the building it extended from and in its elegant furniture, perfumed air and views of wildlife in the garden was more Continental hotel than the Health Service waiting room he had half-expected.
‘Hello,’ Grey waved to the residents, as attention turned to his arrival. ‘I’m Inspector Rase, and I’m the senior investigative officer. I want to thank you all for giving statements to my colleagues, and to say how much we value your assistance at such a sensitive time.
There was a general murmuring of goodwill, before a man went to rise as if to speak.
‘Please don’t get up,’ said Grey as he and Cori moved over to him and sat down.
‘As I said to your delightful Sergeant here,’ the man’s eyes twinkling as he glanced at her, ‘I’m sure I speak for us all when I say how shocked we are at such an act occurring under our roof; poor Stella, who could ever have done such a thing?’
‘That’s what we hope to find out, sir.’
‘Carstairs,’ he announced and shook Grey’s hand.
‘Was Ms Dunbar’s flat near yours, sir?’
‘No; my wife has difficulty with the stairs, so we took one on the ground floor.’
‘Of course, you don’t have a lift. I don’t suppose you knew Stella before she lived here?’
‘No.’ He suddenly looked serious. ‘I don’t think any of us did.’
‘And how would you describe her to me, sir, as one who never knew her?’
‘A fine woman, but a stern one; brooked no nonsense, and she earned my respect all the more for that.’
‘Well, thank you again for your help,’ said Grey and went to rise.
‘Inspector, before you go, could you tell me: will you be putting a policeman here tonight?’
A new voice crept into his ear,
‘A lot of them are asking for it, Inspector; but as long as we don’t know why Stella was killed…’
Grey looked up to see it was the orderly who was talking to him, on her way past with a coffeepot in one hand and three stacked dirty bowls in the other.
He nodded, confident he could square the overnight posting of one Constable with the Superintendent.
‘You have their statements?’ he asked Cori as they stood to leave, she shaking a folderful of papers in response.
‘Come on, let’s get some space.’
They got as far as the car, where with the heater and map light on (for the afternoon was drawing in) they sat in silence; Grey finally speaking,
‘”We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’”
‘General MacArthur said that. It’s one of those terms you hear all the time but which I’ve never understood: like “self-parody” or “the exception that proves the rule”.’
‘I’m afraid you’ve lost me, sir.’
‘Sorry; it was just something Derek Waldron told me: that Stella vetoed any attempt to get that end flat sold, the one with the cheeseplants.’
Alone at last and with a moment to breath, they quickly caught each other up with all they’d learnt since the flat search.
‘So she blocked the sale?’ asked Cori.
‘Apparently she was terrified of who she’d get living next door, of they invading her corridor space; even when their Trust Committee vets new applicants.’
‘A fear response?’
‘Yes, when so much else about her suggests she was in complete control.’
Cori mused, ‘It’s interesting, you talking of her having a veto on what’s meant to be a committee — I got a definite impression from the residents that Stella was someone you’d look over your shoulder for before mentioning her name.’
‘Yes, definitely not one among equals.’
‘But I can understand her fear — I had a flat before I met Brough, and you can make it as homely as you like but you can never quite forget that you don’t own the building, that you can’t go far without sharing space with others and having to trust them. I love our house, I could never give it up now.’
‘In Paris whole families live in flats. They don’t even own them, don’t pass any property on to the kids. Still, this fear’s the only chink in Stella’s armour that we’ve found till now — we should bear that in mind.’
‘ Stella this, Stella that… you’re on first-name terms now?’
‘Sorry?’ he was still deep in thought.
‘You way you talk it’s almost like you knew her.’
‘After today I’m not sure I didn’t — you know both Derek Waldron and Rachel Sowton told me I was her friend now, as if her memory had been placed in my hands. Anyway, I think I’m beginning to take to our Stella Dunbar. I’ve always warmed to cold people; don’t ask me why. I think it’s an admiration for stoicism, the effort it takes.’
Cori chuckled, ‘You make me laugh, sir.’
‘God, what a pair to have around in a crisis though: that Derek Waldron; and Charlie Prove sounds even worse.’
‘They’ve had a tough day, sir.’
‘But honestly, you think at a time like this they’d pull themselves together.’ Even as he said it it sounded harsh.
‘But these are the very times that people fall apart.’
‘Well, that’s why we do the job we do.’
‘You’ll be Superintendent one day with a logical mind like that. So,’ he gathered up the arguments, ‘the major players, her friends: what did you make of them?’
‘Well, I saw Derek Waldron in the dayroom after you’d finished with him. He looked a bit shaken, I must say, I don’t know what you’d been doing with him. He just seemed like a very genuinely upset person, and has given us our only witness statement of interest.’
‘Yes, the girl on the stairs. So, Rachel Sowton?’
‘I don’t think I saw her again after she left us at the third floor flats. You were rather hogging her, I was told — didn’t the pair of you go for a walk?’
‘We bought oranges.’
‘That didn’t do Marlon Brando any good. But from third-party accounts, she is an excellent Duty Manager — tireless, on call twentyfour-seven, even too-hard a worker — and no one here has a bad word to say about her.’
‘Not quite twentyfour-seven — she was out that evening.’
‘Yes,’ Cori rustled the papers. ‘She was one of the first to give a statement before we got here. She was out last night between eight thirty and one am, though she wouldn’t say where she was, only that she was in town and went straight to her ground floor flat afterwards, where no note had been left by the orderlies of anything requiring her attention, so went straight to bed.’
‘And that leaves Charlie Prove. You’ve seen him?’
‘Not big-big, but solid-shouldered. Of all of the men here I’d guess he’s the one strong enough. But…’
At these words Cori said quietly, ‘You haven’t met him yet, have you, sir.’
‘No, and won’t get to any time soon if the doctor keeps needing to sedate him. I do know he reacted so badly when they found her that Derek Waldron half-wished it had been Rachel Sowton’s sorry lot to have to find their friend’s body alone.’
‘Well I can’t say about any of that, sir, only what I saw with my own eyes, when Charlie came down to the dayroom later.’
‘Which was? Spare no detail — fact, not analysis.’
‘Well, I was with the Constables, going through statements, talking to residents, when in he came to sit at one end with people who must have been close friends. Ellie brought him coffee…’
‘The orderly. You spoke to her, with Mr Carstairs?’
‘Oh yes, of course. Carry on.’
‘I caught Ellie’s eye and called her over, and she confirmed it was Prove. Only, no sooner had I got up to approach than he was suddenly crying, making this noise like a screeching that you wouldn’t credit, and hugging a poor old dear in a way I thought might break her in half. Ellie and another orderly went to soothe him and took him away, only for the doctor to arrive soon after and put him under again.’
‘So you didn’t get a chance to talk to him?’
‘No; and going through these papers it doesn’t look like anyone else has either.’
‘So, he’s the last person in the place to give a statement. Interesting timings too, not crying till he saw you there, and saw were looking right at him.’
‘Yes, I wondered if he feared being interviewed.’
Grey wasn’t sure this was entirely what he was getting at, but then remembered the man’s history and felt bad,
‘Yes, you’re probably right. There are things I’ve learned about Charlie Prove today that I need to tell you now before I have a chance to write them up; most importantly, that he reportedly had a daughter who was killed, possibly on the Hills estates.’
‘Oh my. That might have been the last time he spoke to the police.’
‘It might have been the last time he found a body. A couple of other nuggets too: such as did you know that it was Stella who brought him to the Cedars, that she had known him in some capacity before he arrived here, and according to Derek Waldron, might even have been helping with his bills?’
‘And here I was doubting him,’ lamented Cori.
‘Oh, I think we have our doubts on all of them.’
‘I suppose it’s our job to doubt people.’
‘Quite right; and make no mistake, there’ll be one person we meet in the course of this for whom all doubts will prove right.’
‘You don’t thing the murder was in-house though?’
‘What do you think?’
After previous postings where she’d been little more than tea-maker and note-taker, it had taken some getting used to to have her senior officer ask, in all sincerity, what she thought about a case. She had made the decision before now that were she to achieve that rank herself (as she kept being told she would do) that she too would encourage her Constables and Sergeants in this manner. Yet on this occasion, she hadn’t much to offer,
‘Well, I think it’s too early to plum for one theory or the other, sir; but chancing my arm, we know that the schoolgirl didn’t kill her, so that leaves the killing earlier or later than ten; later if we go with the pathologist’s preliminary estimate.’
‘Well let’s hope so, as the other scenario leaves the girl running away after finding the body.’
‘Derek Waldron said she might have been upset when he saw her,’ remembered Cori from her own interview.
Grey considered, ‘But not hysterical, not screaming. She’d have gone and told someone. So if not ten, then what time?’ he asked rhetorically.
‘I’d say at least a half an hour later,’ said Cori leafing through the statements, ‘as ten was when half of these people went up…’
‘… and so no one could have gotten up and down those stairs at bed time without falling over residents and orderlies. No, no outsider could reasonably have done it at that time.’
‘So,’ she surmised, ‘the attack was either later, or committed by someone they’d have expected to see on the stairs at that busy time, popping in and out of rooms, only disappearing for a moment.’
‘I’d say that’s the nub of it. You know,’ he reflected, ‘Rachel Sowton has a theory of her own: that Stella’s routine should have seen her in bed by this time, and so if she was killed later then something had already happened to keep her up.’
‘To do with the schoolgirl? After all, she wasn’t meant to be there so late.’
‘Maybe, maybe. What do I know? We know nothing about the victim yet, and less about her friends. Where is that Holmesian logic when you need it?’
Cori started the engine.
‘And I’ll tell you another person we’ve seen today,’ continued Grey, ‘with the strength to hold a person still and throttle them.’
‘Not Ellie, the orderly?’
‘You said yourself, Cori, it’s our job to doubt people.’
‘But I spoke to her, sir; and had you had a chance to have done properly then you’d know she loves those people like a mother, she couldn’t do a thing to harm them.’
‘Fair enough. As you say, too early to plum for just one theory.’
Cori moved the car off along the empty afternoon roads.
‘These trees are wonderful, aren’t they?’ suggested Grey for not the first time that afternoon, as they moved along Cedars Avenue.
‘I don’t know why you don’t move in, sir. I’m sure they’d have you; and Stella was only in her forties when she came here.’
‘Well you can mock — you’ll have your kids to look after you. Who’ve I got? I’m sure I wouldn’t mind a woman like Rachel Sowton having my wellbeing in mind.’
‘You’re barking up the wrong tree there, sir,’ answered Cori; but Grey was too distracted to question her meaning, and she didn’t elaborate.
Chapter 6 — Raine Rossiter
Arriving at their station squeezed around the rim of a gardened square between the library and the town’s civic buildings, they pulled in beside the squad cars and vans in the yard behind. Grey looked up at the window he knew his Superintendent could often be found peering out from, though he was not there that afternoon, gone home early to whatever it was he had asked Grey to interrupt him in with news that evening. With his Sergeant the Inspector went straight through to the main office, where their administrative support was already working through the materials sent through earlier.
‘Hello, sir,’ chirped Sarah Cobb. ‘We were expecting you back earlier, your drinks have gone cold.’
‘Lovely, thanks,’ said Cori through gulping lukewarm tea.
‘That poor old lady,’ continued Sarah.
‘Did you know her?’ asked her boss, suddenly concerned.
‘Oh no, but one of my Nan’s friends was there, it’s a lovely place.’
‘It is that,’ agreed Grey to a smile from Cori.
‘Have you found anything yet, sir?’
‘Not much, just a lot of character stuff. We’re relying on you.’
‘Okay, well I haven’t got the whole way back yet but I’ve found out a few little pieces: Stella Dunbar is on the electoral role and the tax system going back to the mid-Seventies, everything consistent with her being seventy-one years old and having paid her way for several decades. She’s not showing as ever being on our police records, even the digitised archives.’
‘Sounds a blameless life.’
‘Tracing forward from her Certificate In Education, I called the teaching unions, one of whom had her listed as a member working at the Tudor Oak Independent School from Seventy-four to Ninety-five.
‘That’s where Brough wants for Connor,’ started Cori. ‘Brooke too if her brother likes it.’
‘Best in the area, I hear,’ said Grey diplomatically.
‘I believe it’s quite expensive,’ was all Sarah added, knowing her boss shared her social outlook; but Grey was thinking,
‘The kind of place, do you reckon, that might award an employee an engraved silver watch?’
‘” For All The Help You’ve Given Us ”,’ recalled Cori.
‘Twenty-one years service might deserve it.’
‘Anyway,’ continued Sarah, ‘this also fits with the Tax Office, who record a change of status around that time to self-employed.’
‘When she became a private tutor,’ noted Cori.
‘And I found something else out there — I called the Property Registry…’
‘You’ve done so much!’
‘Not really, sir, I’ve had most of the day and it’s all very easy these nowadays. Anyway, she’s had two flats within the building.’
‘Yes, Derek Waldron told me she’d moved to the top floor for more privacy.’
‘Well, the Registry told me that she didn’t buy the first flat, but that it was willed to her.’
‘Another Dunbar, though they had no more than a name. However, the will was handled by a firm of solicitors in town: Rossiter’s — you pass the office in the High Street.’
‘And now the Trust’s solicitors.’
‘Yes, they confirmed it when I called them — there’ll be someone at the office all afternoon.’
‘Then we must get over there.’ Grey was as usual agog at their assistant’s efficiency. ‘In the sixteen years of the Trust has their been any trouble at the Cedars? Tax evasion, dodgy accounting? Anything on our books?’
‘None I can find, sir.’
‘Then please find me some impropriety somewhere, Sarah.’
‘I’ll try my best. Oh yes, and there’s one other lead: the teaching union I spoke to had Stella listed as a Mrs S Mars for her first term at Tudor Oak.’
‘I’ve found nothing else out yet, though this would also be about the time she appears on the electoral role as Dunbar.’
‘But her certificate read Dunbar in Sixty-three.’
‘She must have married and then reverted,’ suggested Cori.
‘I haven’t got to the records of that yet.’
‘At last we find your limit, Sarah,’ said Grey in a way he knew she’d read the humour of. He slapped his hands on his knees,
‘Then we have places to get to before they close — Cori, get to the Southney School and ask if they have the names of students seeing private tutors; otherwise ask for girls with long dark hair, initials EN or SK.’
‘Meanwhile, Sarah, there’s something we didn’t know earlier to ask you about: one of those who found the victim, Charlie Prove, had a daughter who may have been killed, possibly around the time the Trust was formed and certainly before he moved in. I know no more than that. As soon as you know all you can about Stella, please move onto him. Oh, and get the rest of the office on Derek Waldron and Rachel Sowton, I want to trust them and I can’t until we’ve checked them out.’
‘What about you, sir?’ asked Cori.
I’m off to Rossiter’s solicitors; and if we’re all back in time, which we should be, then on to Tudor Oak School.’
‘But it’s a school, sir. They won’t be open much longer today.’
‘Well we’re not going to get there by three thirty even if we leave now, and the other sites are closer and as important. Could you call them this moment, Sarah, and have someone who remembers those days stay and wait for us. This is all too important — we have to go to the only place we knew she ever was before the Cedars.’
Two schools in one afternoon, thought Cori, who like many an adult had taken years of being a parent to approach their child’s house of learning without the ghosts of her own education being also in attendance. It was all there though as she entered the front door of the modern Combined Administration Building and followed the sign along the corridor for the office: the metal chairs, the naive art, the scuffs along the skirting boards from cleaning machines.
‘Can we help you?’
Cori thought she knew why the Inspector has assigned himself the solicitor’s office, as an unknown man would rouse even more suspicion in a school secretary than that which she was under now. The woman was maybe fifty and seemed effortlessly stern — perhaps set so, Cori imagined, from a thousand ‘ Come back here! ’s.
She had her badge ready,
‘Sergeant Smith, Southney Station. I wonder, could I have a word?’
Her identification as a police officer, while reassuring to the secretary in one way seemed alarming in another,
‘Miss Foreshore. Won’t you sit?
A part of Cori couldn’t resist the impression that she was here to be asked about her homework.
‘Please don’t tell me one of the children are in trouble. What have they done now?’
‘It’s not that. No one’s in trouble.’
‘Then it’s a parent. Oh Lord. Which child? I’ll fetch them for you.’
‘No, please don’t worry. It’s not that,’ she repeated. ‘We are investigating a serious matter, but one that I’m sure none of your children will prove to be caught up in.’ A white lie, but necessary for the lady’s nerves.
‘Oh?’ the secretary was still far from settled.
‘I wonder, do you know a Ms Stella Dunbar?’
‘She’s one of our tutors.’
‘I’m afraid she died last night.’
‘And you want to tell her students? I understand. She was English Lit., wasn’t she?’ The lady began rustling through her well-organised desk drawers.
‘She seemed like a few different subjects.’ Cori remembered the books on Stella’s dining table. ‘But what I really need are the names of those who saw her.’
‘Well that’s why I ask her subject: you see we only keep a list here of those qualified tutors we know in the area, to recommend to parents. But as for the students who were seeing them at any one time, well, that’s a private matter between the tutor and the parents.’
‘And do you remember recommending any parents?’
‘Well… there are several tutors, and so many parents; and it might not have been me here when they came in to ask… Ah, here we are.’ Miss Foreshore pulled a piece of paper from the cantilevers and dividers, ‘So what do we know about her? Oh yes, there’s almost every subject listed here, and all ages too. That will be trickier.’
‘Why so?’ asked Cori as she took the piece of paper offered.
‘Well often the student’s teacher in that subject will know if there’s a tutor, might even have recommended the parents to them. Had she taught only one subject I would have known the teacher to ask. As it is, the best bet will be for me to announce the news in the Staff Room tomorrow morning before registration — that’s the one time all the teachers are guaranteed to be there. They need to know in case they have students with appointments: we don’t want a child going around there after school and finding she’s not there. I wonder, could I ask?’
‘Of course. I’m afraid her death appears violent… though clearly not the work of a child,’ added Cori quickly to reassure the secretary.
‘And do you know who..?’
‘I’m afraid not; however a student was there that day and might have seen something.’
‘Poor dear, I do hope not.’ The secretary pondered a moment, before asking, ‘You’ll have been through Stella’s things: she didn’t leave any record of who she was tutoring?’
‘Only a diary with what we think may be initials: EN and SK; and we believe one was a girl with long dark hair, and that she had a female friend.’
‘But you don’t know which was the long-dark-haired girl? You’ll see that doesn’t give me much to go on. I can look through the registers and see if a name jumps out at me — it’s hard to think with just the initials; but otherwise we’ll have to hope a teacher knows something tomorrow.’
‘Then thank you. Can I ask, did you have any dealings with Ms Dunbar?’
‘Well only occasionally through the office. She was always very professional.’
‘And what did people think of her generally? Did you recommend her often?’
‘Oh yes, we did recommend her. Her fees were at the high end, but she earned them, Sergeant. In fact… she could rather embarrass a teacher with the effect she could have on a student: twenty, even forty percent improvements in grades when she really connected with them. There are a lot of people in this town with passes who wouldn’t have them if it hadn’t been for her. She will be missed.’
‘Here’s my number — call me any time with the slightest thing.’
Cori thanked Miss Foreshore, and skipped quickly from the low-ceilinged building, off to walk the short way back to the station and prepare for school two.
Rossiter’s Solicitors in Law had been a long-standing feature of Southney’s High Street, one of those shopfronts that remained the same decade in-decade out and which reassured in the belief that some things could be permanent and may endure. Of course Rossiter himself could not have endured for so long as the shop, and Grey, who hadn’t been in there for years nor could remember who had attended him then, assumed it would be a partner or descendant that he would need to speak to on this occasion.
It was a woman buzzed by the secretary and who brought Grey into her office, calling for coffee to be provided,
‘Raine Rossiter, Inspector. I’m the third generation; and as long as there’s a Rossiter to run the shop we’ll be here on the High Street. Of course I’m married, this is only my professional name; like an actress,’ she giggled in a way Grey might normally have found irritating.
‘I’m afraid it’s sad news that brings me here.’
‘As is so often the case.’ Her mood changed in an instant. ‘A will, a loved one — people rarely visit us out of joy.’
‘Not sad for me personally, but thank you.’
‘I know, your assistant called ahead.’
‘Then you know about Ms Dunbar.’
‘Stella, dead.’ She shook her head.
‘I’m afraid so.’
Who could imagine?’
‘How were you told?’
‘Rachel called me this morning.’
‘Now, you represent Ms Dunbar and the Trust?’
‘My father is the Trust’s named solicitor, but I do the day-to-day work around here now. But,’ her mood changed again, ‘a death at the Cedars doesn’t normally bring out an Inspector.’
‘I’m afraid it was no natural death. Stella was murdered.’
At that moment the receptionist brought in the coffee.
‘Oh Andrea, you won’t believe what the Inspector’s come about.’ Raine Rossiter turned quickly to Grey, ‘You don’t mind if I tell her..? Andrea, Stella Dunbar’s death wasn’t natural, she’s been murdered.’
Andrea’s reaction was no less dramatic than her employer’s; who instructed,
‘Call Rachel for me, will you, and tell her I’ll call myself as soon as I’m finished with the Inspector.’
Andrea disappeared leaving the coffee unserved.
Grey resumed, ‘There are certain details of the Trust I must know.’
‘They’re happy for you to know?’
‘They know it’s a murder investigation.’
‘There are several files — where should we start?’
She took a card folder from a filing tray in her desk, the tray presumably for those papers she needing keeping handy, opened the folder and read,
‘The Cedars Trust, registered sixteen years ago; with Ms S Dunbar as a Trustee, along with a Mr D Waldron as the only other original one still listed, I notice. There’s a whole inventory of names here, past and present. Do you want them all?’ He nodded and she passed him the paper, ‘Ask Andrea to make you a copy on your way out.’
He read the names, several recorded as long deceased while others were familiar from the day’s enquiries. One name jumped out,
‘Rachel Sowton is a Trustee?’
‘Yes, made so five years ago.’
‘And there’s a name missing here.’ He looked up and down the list again. ‘Charlie Prove.’
‘Charlie’s never been a Trustee,’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘But he should have been made one a decade ago.’
Grey may have phrased this as a statement but would till have liked an answer. None forthcoming, he sidestepped,
‘So tell me, how does the money work?’
‘Well, all residents pay at least five thousand a year into the Trust, depending on need; though apart from the original group only residents who have been there for five years become Trustees and so can decide how that money is spent.’
‘And wasn’t there a one-off fee at the start?’
‘The original eight all put in a one-off fifteen thousand pounds to pay for building work, and also to buy the two downstairs flats they use communally.’
‘Well, the Trust has for years been paying this back to them a little each year in the form of a subsidy on their fees.’
Grey thought on this a moment,
‘So this makes the repayments a goodwill gesture to themselves, rather than repayments on a loan?’
‘That’s a way of looking at it.’
‘And meaning that if any of them did die before repayment, then there wasn’t going to be a balance of the loan left to pay to their estate?’
‘Yes. They forewent any financial advantage owing to their inheritors, to save the Trust that financial burden of a lump sum required to be paid out upon their death.’
Very clever that, Grey considered of that first Committee.
‘How much of Stella’s was left to pay back to her?’
‘Only a fraction, I’d estimate.’
So there was one potential motive annulled — her death would not benefit the Trust this way.
‘Let’s talk about Stella.’
‘Did you know her, Inspector?’
‘No. How well did you?’
‘I doubt there was a week we weren’t in touch.’
‘In touch with the Trust or with her?’
‘That tends… tended to be the same thing.’
‘You mean she ran things? But I thought there was the Committee?’
But she caught something in his eye as he said this,
‘To ask like that I think you already know how things were run.’
‘Stella had a tendency to supervise?’
‘These are retirees we’re talking about, they’ve had a life of owning businesses and paying bills and they want someone else to take care of all that for them now. What’s more, they want care home service for warden-controlled prices. Okay, they own their own flats, which aren’t cheap either, but someone has to run that place to budget.’
‘And that was Stella?’
‘With Rachel, yes.’
‘Was this why Rachel is a Trustee?’
‘She has to be, she’s more than just a employee.’
‘Stella wanted this?’
‘There was no disagreement.’
‘Was there often with Stella’s suggestions?’
The solicitor considered her answer, ‘Some people felt the wrong side of her, I’m sure of it; but as a professional and as a woman making my way in the world, I understood her, Inspector, understood how we must sometimes be tough, even cold to the world.’
‘I’ll need the paperwork of her two flat purchases.’
‘Andrea will have them for you first thing tomorrow; though,’ she checked herself, ‘there was only one purchase, the first flat was willed.’
He wasn’t sure he had been testing her, but it proved she knew her onions. It also got them where he wanted to be going,
‘That was… twenty-four years ago? Not that you’d have been here that long ago.’
‘I’m not sure I should respond to such flattery, Inspector,’ she answered even as her smile confirmed it had been welcomed. ‘That was indeed my father’s era, though I was his trainee by then. He took me everywhere with him, including to her school.’
‘Yes, that big place where she worked, I’ll never forget it. We met her in her lunchhour; I don’t think she lived in town at that time.’
‘Had he dealt with Stella before?’
‘I got the impression she was new to him; after all it was the aunt who was the client.’
‘And the family?’
‘There are other Dunbars beside the aunt in the files, though nothing current. We can check that for you. I must say though, you are going back a long way — what on earth do you think was the motive? I mean, that is why you’re asking, isn’t it — to learn why someone killed her?’
‘You can’t think of any more recent reason?’
‘What kind of question’s that?’
‘Well, you saw her manage her finances; quite substantial amounts I’ve learnt.’
‘I assure you, no institution in this town is better run.’
‘And by just two women, three if we include yourself, the Committee little more than a rubber stamp.’
‘I resent that implication.’
‘You were her friend, that is clear enough. Please don’t let sentiment hold you back now.’
‘I assure you, there is nothing to tell, even were I held! I only wish that my friend were allowed the dignified in death she had in life.’
He paused, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Rossiter. Money is often the motive in a crime. You appreciate I wouldn’t be doing my job if I…’
‘That’s all right. I take it I’m not seriously on your suspects list?’
‘That would be no list I would want to put my name to.’
‘Then I rest assured.’ Her slight smile confirmed he was forgiven.
‘I think I have one more thing to ask you now though, and then will be very glad of the files tomorrow morning.’
‘In fact his name cropped up earlier. She had a friend, Charlie Prove..?’
Raine Rossiter offered an exasperated groan, tilting her head back as she fell into her executive’s chair,
‘I’m not going to get out of here without talking about him, am I? Everything I’ve just said, about no enterprise being run better? Well, forget it when it comes to him.’
Grey felt a door of long-held frustration being unlocked.
‘Not long over a year after they had created the Cedars Trust — it’s rules laid down, its rooms laid out, and after all the work my father had put in — then Stella, who’d been strictest of all the residents over needing to take their plan seriously, and how they weren’t just neighbours any more but had a responsibility to each other and needed to pay their money promptly; Stella, the architect of the whole scheme, called a special Committee meeting to say she had a friend who had no money, no means of paying his fees, but that once you’d heard his story you’d be as eager to have him be a resident as she was.’
‘You were there that day?’
‘No, but we learnt of it soon after — my father would be bending every rule to get him in.’
‘So, he got in, obviously.’
‘After a lot of negotiation he was given — given — a flat to rent at rates you wouldn’t even get a Social Services bed and breakfast room for, and all the rights of a resident for half the usual monthly fee; all of which — show no sentiment, you said — I can tell you now that Stella was paying for.’
Raine Rossiter nodded, ‘At first it was thought he could do some handywork around the place to pay his way, but he was useless. Have you met him, Inspector?’
‘Not yet: he’s under sedation.’
‘He found Stella, with Rachel Sowton.’
She winced, ‘Then I’m afraid you won’t get much out of him for days.’
This wasn’t what Grey wanted to hear.
‘I’m sorry,’ she continued, ‘the way I talk about him you must think I hate him; but then how could anyone when they know his story.’
‘Our researcher is still tracing the file.’
‘Then I must tell you: he had a daughter, Eunice, who was murdered by her boyfriend. Well, I say murdered by him; he vanished that same night, went back up north we believe. He was a Scotsman, you see, though as unrepresentative of that happy race as he could be. Have you ever been to Edinburgh, Inspector?’
‘No, I can’t say I have.’
‘Do, when all this is over. Clear your head.’
He checked his watch, ‘I really must getting back to the station, but all that has left me with a couple of final questions: when Stella’s aunt willed her the flat, was there money attached?’
‘Yes, Inspector, rather a lot of it, though she continued to work for a number of years, up until about the time she thought of starting the Trust.’
‘Did anything happen sixteen years ago to prompt this?’
‘No; I think she just realised she wanted to slow down, work less, secure her future.’
‘By then she had the top floor flat?’
‘By then she had the top floor flat.’
‘And anything there I need to know about?’
‘You know, it’s not uncommon for people to move within buildings.’
‘How much of her money is left?’
‘She would have kept herself going a good few years yet.’
‘Even with Charlie Prove?’
‘Even with Charlie Prove.’
‘Then thank you, you’ve been very helpful. Oh, and tomorrow I think I’ll need the paperwork for Charlie’s flat transaction too.’
He left the paper on her desk for them to add to what they’d bring tomorrow. They shook hands; and as Grey left through the reception overheard Andrea still on the phone, though he had the impression not to Rachel Sowton.
Chapter 7 — Tudor Oak
It was getting dark by the time Sergeant Smith found herself driving to the large and somewhat historic building on the outskirts of town, her passenger the Inspector ruminating in the passenger seat,
‘The Tudor Oak Independent School? Nice name — reminds me of the Mary Rose. It can’t go all that way back though, can it?’
‘I’m not sure. The building’s old though, from what I remember driving past. The modern school’s been there well over a hundred years though; I think it used to be a convent or something before, and was used as a hospital during the First World War.’
‘The name might be a way to gain a bit of that history.’
‘So how much are you looking at so send a child there?’ Even as he asked he knew it was none of his business.
‘About the same as you’d pay to live at the Cedars.’
‘Free to those that can afford it…’ he couldn’t help but add. ‘And Brough’s serious, about wanting this for your kids?’
‘I don’t know, he has big ideas — you know Brough.’
At an edge of town so far out it was almost its own district and served by its own shops and set of amenities, they pulled in before an impressive building, the oldest parts of which Grey saw right away might well have been Tudor. It must have predated everything that now surrounded it, built entirely independently of the industrial development of the town and may have once had extensive gardens upon which it’s neighbours now sat.
‘A shame it’s so hemmed in,’ he said.
‘They must play sport somewhere else.’
That was a good point. The school buildings were made all the more dramatic at dusk by the placing in the ground of spotlights that shot up into the air to highlight the walls and windows with their exterior detailing.
‘Sarah told me a Miss Oven would be waiting for us in the Junior’s Hall.’
(Grey had, at the time these instruction were being relayed to Cori, being issuing some of his own, or rather asking if Inspector Glass, recently appointed head of their station’s uniformed contingent, could place a Constable as promised at the Cedars for the night.)
‘She said it was the smaller building to the left.’ The pair walked towards the only lit windows in that direction. As they did so, behind them a hundred rugby boots clattered over the road they had just pulled in off, their field of action obviously somewhere on the other side. Grey remembered how thankful every ex-schoolboy ought to be for there being no one in adult life with the power to commit you to two hours of that torture each week.
‘Here’s the Junior’s entrance,’ spotted Cori, her mind on more practical matters.
Miss Oven proved to be a genial and reliable host; not far off being Stella Dunbar’s contemporary and evidently as happy in her work as anyone had a right to be. They sat in the centre of the large lit room, its ceiling pointing steeply in the manner of a small chapel. The desks now grouped in little islands Grey guessed had once been in straight lines. At one end of the room uncurtained windows were full of night. The lady had provided tea and biscuits,
‘The school secretary asked me to stay behind for you once the after-school clubs had gone. I knew her you see, Stella. We were colleagues for many years, and I hope friends.’
‘The secretary told you why we were asking after her?’ Cori sensed the Inspector was leaving this to her.
‘Yes, yes it is very sad. But then we all have to go sometime.’
‘I’m afraid Stella’s death wasn’t a natural one.’
‘No, I don’t suppose it was if it brought you here.’
‘I’m afraid she was attacked. You’re not surprised?’
‘Not really, not when I stopped to think about it. The children went home a while ago, and I’ve been sat here with my thoughts of Stella flooding back after sixteen years.’
‘And what we’re you thinking?’
‘That she was a woman under a shadow, Sergeant, cursed with seriousness and unable to leave things alone or give others their head. She did much good, I’ll grant you, but she could be so tiring. No battle won would be enough for her, yet fail at the next task and all was lost. I expect you’re going to tell me that when it came down to it she couldn’t let a lad snatch her bag or a burglar take her precious things without fighting back… oh yes, the silver. Was that it?’’
‘We think it may have been a little more than that. When did you start at this school, Miss Oven? Was Stella already here?’
‘I don’t remember who was first or exactly when I started — I worked at several schools for a while — but we became firm friends, definitely by the time of the centenary: I remember the staff meal, and that was Nineteen Eighty-three.’
‘And what form would your friendship take?’
‘I only taught in the mornings while my own were at school, but she’d come with me when I went to the shops or we’d go and have a cup of tea before she went back at the end of her lunch hour.’
‘Did she have many other friendships here?’
‘She was respected more than loved, Sergeant. People here respected her. It all came down to how you took her, and how she took you.’
‘You must have made an impression then, to be so regarded.’
‘Well I couldn’t tell you why, I never had to make any special effort with her. She must have found something reliable in me, was my best guess.’
‘So the question had occurred to you?’
‘Oh yes — Stella did nothing by accident.’
‘Tell us about your work.’
‘Well, I was in the Juniors, she the Seniors and Sixth Form: History and English, but mostly English. She got the best results in the county, sent several down to Oxford.’
‘When she started, what was her name?’
‘Oh, you mean her surname? Always Dunbar to me; ‘though now I think of it, I’d sensed there was a marriage.’
‘Wouldn’t a good friend, as you say she was, have shared such a fact?’
‘Not with Stella, no. Odd that, isn’t it? But that was just how she was. I couldn’t tell you one think about her life before I knew her, or much that happened to her outside of school once I did. Yet she had honesty about her, if she trusted you, if she thought you were good. I remember acts of kindness: a posy on my birthday once, or speaking up for me in a staff meeting. She could leave a real sense of warmth in you; and the rest was her business.’
‘A posy. Was that from her own garden? Only we don’t know where she lived when she was first here.’
‘Oh, she lived in the Alderman’s Cottages. They’re gone now, called a health hazard sadly. They became attached to the school in its early days, and were used as accommodation for unmarried masters,’ she chuckled.
‘When were they demolished?’
‘Long after Stella lived there.’
‘She lived there all the time you knew her?’
‘Yes, until her aunt left her that lovely flat.’
‘A single person’s rooms?’
‘But you sensed she’d been married before?’
‘Only vaguely at certain times; such as when I spoke about my own marriage, she seemed to understand. She wasn’t like some singletons, professional women who’d treat tales of married life with shock: “Oh, you’d never catch me getting up that early to cook a husband’s breakfast.”’ Miss Oven dissolved into laughter.
‘But with Stella it was different?’
‘I would talk about Christopher and me and the kids, and she would nod and smile sagely in that way she had, instantly letting you know what she understood you and… maybe I was reading too much into it, but I always thought that she must have once known something of that life herself.’
‘Go on,’ prompted Cori, sensing more.
‘And there was always the impression of something else in the background, maybe an impression formed from nothing as I say; but I thought she must have had a bad experience in the past to be so against romance now.’
‘So she didn’t have a romantic life?’
‘Not while I knew her, no; and she lived on site, so there wasn’t much that the staff wouldn’t have got to know.’
‘She lived in the Alderman’s Cottages, where there’d be single men?’
‘Well, of course the school was full of men, single and married! Stella was not an unattractive woman, Sergeant, and she received her share of attention, for all her aloofness. Some of the male staff just wanted their wicked way, of course; but not all of them: some were decent, honest, in want of a wife. “Why not?” I’d say. “You’ve got no ties. Why not find someone nice to settle down with?” but she turned them all down.’
‘Anyone in particular?’
‘No, there was never anything more serious than the usual workplace intrigue. Of course some of them would moon over her for years. You see, academics are not always practical men, they can be carried away — in love with love, as someone put it — and a woman like Stella was meat and drink to their fantasies. She could have a trickery about her, that one, though claimed not even to notice. Still, it’s a shame, she could have made a match with one or other of them, I’m sure.’
Listening to the warm, open Miss Oven talking of the closed, rebuffing Ms Dunbar, Grey couldn’t visualise two less-alike people to become friends.
Continued Cori, ‘And when she left the school?’
Something in the lady’s tone confirmed to Grey that this was where the bad stuff would start, remarks on her astringency becoming a definite feature of any conversation on the topic of Ms Dunbar. He was gaining the impression that Stella couldn’t have served a glass of wine without a claim by someone that it had been laced with strychnine.
‘Well, they do say endings should be sudden,’ continued Miss Oven, ‘and an ending is always a severance, however you dress it up.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Relations broke down with the Head, and Stella was asked to leave.’
‘But you said she was successful, got students to good colleges.’
‘Oh yes, she did. There’s no denying that.’
‘Then what was it down to?’
She lady considered, ‘Educational differences.’
‘In what way?’
‘A new Head had been appointed the year before. He was very popular, and a proponent of child-centred learning, which was an idea that had been around for a while by then, and which was meant to put the student first; whereas Stella held with fact and method being central, and the children somewhat incidental in the whole scheme.’
‘Could you break it down for us non-teachers?’
‘There were certain age-old ideas that the new Head dropped, and not before time: physical aspects of the classroom, such as the desks being lined up in rows facing a blackboard, and absolute silence being demanded as they worked; silence except for when the students had facts drilled into their heads by chanting them from the board by rote.
‘Meanwhile, new ideas emerged: such as contextual learning.’
‘If you could explain.’
‘Where a child would be encouraged to understand what it was like to be, say, a sailor in the Napoleonic Wars, rather than just having a list of dates of battles in their heads.’
‘The old ways were looked down upon?’
‘Yes, and Stella didn’t agree.’
Grey noticed Miss Oven was hardening as she spoke of those times, interrupting the women at last to ask,
‘I would have thought Tudor Oak would have been the last place to have fallen to trendy methods?’
‘ Trendy is not the word I’d use to describe them; though yes it was pretty much the last place. The old Head had been a stickler: a good man, but years behind the times; and as those trained in the new ideas rose up through the ranks, so even as great a bastion as the Tudor Oak Independent School would one day fall to common sense.’
‘So what prompted Stella’s crisis?’
‘There was a meeting between her and the new Head. She told me about it afterwards: she said he started right off by saying that he didn’t consider that she was “sufficiently engaging the children’s emotions” as she taught them, and that she “didn’t even know if they were happy in the classroom!”
‘Stella replied along the lines that she hadn’t “the first idea of whether they were happy,” but that if it was within her gift to make them so then it was “through giving them the bedrock of knowledge that would advantage them their whole lives through!”
Miss Oven chuckled, ‘I’ll give her that, she could stand her ground even when she was losing the fight.’
‘You consider that a losing argument?’
‘Inspector, you can’t ignore a child’s emotional needs and then hope and pray they turn out fine.’
‘And what she said, about knowledge giving them a better life?’
‘Without the confidence to use it?’
‘In my experience, self-esteem comes from knowing you’re good at something, from having been taught properly, from earning a job you know you can do.’
‘That’s the most Dickensian thing I’ve heard in years, Inspector. Is sink-or-swim still your credo? I’m only glad for you that you swam.’
He threw himself back in his chair in exasperation, leaving the talking again to Cori.
Miss Oven reminisced, ‘I remember Stella in the staff room once, declaring, “These are the methods that made the minds that ran an empire!” and you can imagine how that went down with the modern thinkers.’
‘And so the new Head asked her to leave?’
‘It was decided it was best.’
‘And how did they work out, the new methods?’
‘Oh, I dare say had she stayed that she’d be happier here now than then. Once the state system completely broke down — you’ll remember the Southney School failed its Ofsted report three years in a row? — then traditionalism became a school like ours’ best selling point.’
‘You don’t sound sympathetic?’
‘I think it was a backwards step; though not as far back as we’d come: I for one won’t take the Juniors back to sitting in rows and intoning from the blackboard. Children like their desks in clusters, it helps them make friends. Stella would say, when we were walking down a corridor and heard a class reciting in unison, oh I don’t know, French verbs or times tables, “Listen to that beautiful sound, the sound of knowledge being imparted; it’s like Gregorian chanting, like Carols at Kings!” I thought it sounded like a chain gang.’
‘You were taught rote yourself?’ asked Grey, unable to leave it be.
‘Of course I was.’
‘Do you wish you hadn’t been?’
‘It’s not as simple as that — there are new methods now.’
‘That don’t work.’
Cori cut in, ‘But the parting was amenable? There were no issues of pay, no need for a tribunal?’
‘As I say, once the matter had been raised it was settled quickly.’
‘And you were sad to see her go?’
‘Of course I was, we didn’t fall out at all, it was the Head she argued with. I was just another teacher and not even in her department.’
‘Did she say what she’d do next, ever talk of other jobs?’
‘She spoke of this being the end for her, that no school could match this one.’
‘But she’d be losing her salary.’
‘I got the feeling she had money, at least after her aunt died.’
‘Nothing ostentatious, just a new coat, good shoes; things a woman notices.’
‘And I wonder, was there a leaving gift?’
‘Oh yes, you mean the silver watch?’
‘We found it at her flat.’
‘I am glad. I knew she was a collector, you see. I was in town once and called on her, after she’d moved there. I think I disturbed her, but she was very civil: invited me in, made me tea, shown me her pieces. I don’t think she had many visitors. I always hoped the watch would make its way into the collection. That would mean I got it right, you see, when I chose it.’
Cori smiled her most sincere smile.
‘And did you keep in touch?’
‘No; but you can drift away from even your very best friends, can’t you?’
‘Thank you, Miss Oven,’ said Cori and held her hand.
‘And thank you for the tea,’ added the Inspector as he got up to leave.
‘You know we should have bought Brough,’ mused Cori as they walked back across the almost empty carpark.
‘No doubt there’ll be open days.’
‘And what a lovely woman.’
‘Were we talking to the same person?’
‘I might send the children here after all, if Miss Oven’s going to be their teacher. Give them some self-belief.’
‘I’m sure if they’ve enough of Brough’s genes then they’ll never want for that.’
‘Oh, Mr Grumpy. What’s got into you?’
‘All this talk of “child-centred learning”.’
‘And what’s wrong with that?’
‘I’m only saying, let’s worry about their feelings once they can read and write and add up and find Britain on a map.’
‘I’m surprised you don’t ask them to bring back the cane.’ But Cori knew that this bickering would get them nowhere,
‘You didn’t say much in there,’ she whispered as they walked back to the car.
‘I couldn’t think of much to say. She sounds like a tough woman to work with.’
‘No, Miss Oven — all smiles, until you cross her. Did you notice how she stood back out of Stella’s arguments with the new Head?’
‘But she didn’t agree with her.’
‘Do you think that’s why Stella buried that silver watch beneath her teaching notes?’
‘Yes, that seems quite cold now. I couldn’t have told Miss Oven the truth. We might have to place it in the display case though, if she visits for the funeral.’
It was after seven as they pulled away.
‘You’ve missed their teatime,’ stated Grey, ever conscious of his colleague’s family ties, as Cori drove them back to town.
‘It’s okay, we’ve found a good new Polish girl — I think it’s in her training not to say anything that makes me feel like a bad mother.’
‘Why don’t you go part time?’
‘Because what’s good enough for the rest of you is good enough for me.’
‘Oh hell, this isn’t a competition of who has the least to go home to.’
‘It’s because there’s too much temptation to that I can’t give in to it — once I’m on that slippery slope then leaving an hour earlier a day becomes two hours and then three; and before you know it I’m coming in for desk duty one morning a week.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said after a pause between them in the dark car.
‘Home; though drop me in the High Street, will you? I want to see if someone’s lights are still on.’
Each knew that even the most serious case required time away from it, that working around the clock brought diminishing results, that batteries needed to be recharged and evidence stepped back from — that there was only so much data the brain could take on board in a day. They also knew that the big hope now was that their teachers might identify the Southney School girls when they were asked about them by Mrs Foreshore, and that that wasn’t going to happen till the morning.
In the end, Cori parked with Grey a minute after pulling up opposite and just along from the solicitor’s office visited earlier, the lights of which were still burning in all but their shop window.
‘So what’s the beef?’ she asked.
‘I think I’ve been bamboozled, told a lot to be told nothing; and it was by was by someone I liked, which doesn’t thrill me.’
‘I wish I knew what was going on in there.’
‘But we know what — they’re getting our documents ready for in the morning.’
‘Or deciding which ones we see?’
‘Then get in there.’
‘No, I don’t know what I’m asking yet, or how it affects anything. You know,’ he said suddenly and not necessarily following on from his previous statement, ‘that they are losing five thousand a year on that cheesplant flat Stella wouldn’t let them sell. Would that be enough for someone on the Committee to see her as a hindrance to be rid of? Especially when there’s talk of wanting to expand and build more rooms.’
‘But property costs a lot more now, sir,’ counselled Cori, whose mortgage repayments reminded her of that fact clearly enough each month. ‘Five thousand’s a drop in the ocean.’
He conceded his theory wasn’t floating.
‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ he said; and with that he was off, heading, with only minor detours to pick up his tea, back to his small house on its unobtrusive street ten minutes walk from the High Street.
Chapter 8 — The Hills Estates
The Inspector woke to a dull repetitive thudding, that in his dream had been his friend and landlord of the Young Prince Hal Tavern, Bill Blunt, banging tankards down along the bar; but upon waking was discovered to be insistent fists against his front door. He instinctively looked for the mobile phone he knew would be on the bedside table, only to see it instead on the floor and broken into three pieces. He looked to the bedside clock but there wasn’t even the light to illuminate the hands clearly.
He jumped up and, pausing only to grab his dressing down, rushed down to speak to the colleague he knew it must be waking him at such an hour — for it was still pitch black outside.
‘Sir, sorry for waking you up like this.’ The Constable seemed as apologetic as he did agitated. ‘We couldn’t raise you on your mobile.’
‘My phone fell on the floor; it’s in bits. What’s up?’
‘There’s been developments at the Cedars, a man called Charlie Prove is dead.’
Grey looked at the clock in the hall, that caught the light of the streetlamp coming through the open door — it was only one am.
‘Wait inside while I dress, make yourself a drink.’
‘Did you leave it on silent, sir?’ asked the practically minded Constable from down in the hall. ‘They can sometimes vibrate themselves off the edge of flat surface.’
Grey had left it on silent, after quietening it for the interview at Tudor Oak School.
Ready in five minutes, he was driven the short distance not to the Cedars but to an area in the Hills estates, where already there were cordons, crowds and harsh artificial light. Superintendent Rose met him sombrely. The Inspector had telephoned him only a few hours before, to report on much background information but no motive or suspect as of yet. Now the case was blown wide open.
‘It’s an ugly business, Grey,’ began his superior. ‘Charlie Prove, you met him earlier?’
‘We hadn’t a chance: he was under sedation.’
‘Well he seems to have come out from under it some time after midnight, to come dashing out in this direction, where someone stove the back of his head in with heavy instrument.’
‘No. He was found by a resident of the flats he was left outside as she came back from work; though others we’ve spoken to have reported a commotion outside just before then — she must have been seconds from seeing the killer.’
‘She’s been directed straight to the Cedars, to manage things there. She’ll be going through his room, I expect.’
Grey’s mind was working now, recalling, ‘You know sir, another resident told me Charlie came from somewhere on the Hills, before living in the Cedars.’
‘We’ll know for sure by morning.’
‘And he had a daughter, sir, who died here.’
‘Eunice — I recognised the surname.’
‘Sarah was finding me the file out.’
‘I’ll re-read it once I’ve spoken to the Chief Constable’s office.’
‘No; but you can see why they’re eager for updates — two murders in two days…’
‘We can solve this, sir.’
‘I know, and that’s what I’ll be telling them.’
Though Southney was a fair sized settlement in itself and had all the amenities the modern British citizen would expect, the fact remained it was a town ringed at arm’s length by major cities, all with much larger forces. The town’s police were always under pressure to show they could handle the big cases.
The Super said with a start, ‘Well, I’m getting back to the station. I don’t think any of us will be getting much sleep tonight.’
So much for recharging batteries. With a hand on his shoulder, Grey was left to gather, collate and manage the activity on the site. Under the watchful eye of maybe thirty local people, he walked over to where the white tent was being unfolded. The site was something like a tarmacked square beneath the blank wall of an apartment block, the windows evidently facing out from other sides — in short one of those civic spaces owned by everyone and no one, and so where no one kept watch. He spoke to the officers there,
‘What’s the light like here, without our floodlights?’
‘Jet black, sir. You’ll see the streetlight’s out.’
‘Dead when they found him, though still warm.’
The team moved apart to show the slumped form of a big man, the garish light catching red splashes across the back of his light pyjama jacket and on the tarmac besides. The victim had had brown hair, which was now dark crimson. The whole scene stunned him,
‘And slippers too, sir.’
‘One blow, do you think?’
‘It looks that way, sir, though the doctor’s on his way.’
Grey was confident that that man would have an easy job.
‘Anything else done to the body?’
‘No, sir, though the killer might have been disturbed moments after first hitting him.’
‘Charlie Prove.’ Grey shook his head in disbelief. ‘Who ID’d him?’
‘I saw him yesterday when we were taking statements at the Cedars, a few of us did. We’ll need to get a relative in to identify him formally, of course.’
‘So what was he doing out here?’
‘A couple of the people we’ve spoken to in the building recognised his name, but no one’s seen him here for years.’
‘Anything else found?’
‘No, sir. We’re doing a fingertip search of the square.’
‘Though the murder weapon was quite large, it seems.’
‘If it’s here we’ll find it, sir.’
‘I know you will.’
Grey spoke then to a neighbour woken by a disturbance shortly after half-past midnight, and then to the woman still tearful who had stumbled — almost literally so — upon Charlie as she came home from her late-evening shift as a packer in a warehouse in the town’s industrial district. Neither were sure if they knew the victim, though neither would either have been very old at the time he lived there.
Taking the scene in, Grey looked at the buildings around him, and at the faces looking back from behind the cordon. All towns had a “bad estate”, and it was not these people’s fault that in Southney it was theirs. He scanned the crowd, who showed no sign of returning to bed even on a worknight; and a lot of them were workers, not all claimants or layabouts as the residents of such areas were often stigmatised; and what’s more the work they did was often of the worst sort, the least secure and poorest paid.
Grey could be honest with himself though: he wouldn’t want to live here, nor could he just ignore the trouble that his uniformed colleagues habitually had in these parts, for this was a place not immune to depressing behaviour and rumbling civil unrest. Yet the people standing beyond the cordon that night were entitled to answers; for whatever trouble they and their children may at different times have gotten into, this act — the slaying of a man and the dumping of him on their doorstep — was of quite another order. Perhaps they were worried their sons would get the blame, perhaps that the crime would become associated with them and further tarnish their area’s name.
Grey decided he must trust them, speaking to the crowd as his colleagues worked behind him,
‘Hello, I’m Inspector Rase, some of you may know me. You’ll know a man was murdered here tonight. His name was Mr Charlie Prove. We believe he may have lived in the area once. If any of you knew him, or know why he might have come this way tonight, then please speak to one of us here, we would be very grateful.’
‘It’s different when it’s an outsider, isn’t it.’
Grey spun around to face the woman’s voice.
‘If it was someone from around here you wouldn’t give a hoot.’
‘We don’t know that he is an outsider. It’s true he doesn’t live here now, but…’ Grey was fumbling.
‘You’re asking a lot aren’t you, asking us to help you?’ This was a different voice. ‘You’re normally only around here to arrest one of us.’
As Grey turned to meet this second speaker he feared he had made a mistake and would now be called to answer for all manner of ills real or imagined. Yet a third voice saved him, a baritone, its accent formed in warmer climes, a voice that sounded to silence all others as its owner let himself beneath the cordon,
‘I knew Charlie Prove,’ the man continued, ‘and I knew Eunice Prove. Is there somewhere we could talk?’
The only private place in that odd location proved to be a standing police car in which the heater had thankfully been left on. Once both were sat inside, the man began,
‘Campbell Leigh,’ he introduced himself. ‘Before we start, I should say that I am here both for myself and also representing the H.E.C.F.’
Grey knew that Inspector Glass, his uniformed counterpart, and his men would have had frequent dealings with the Hills Estates Community Forum; however the lack of any really serious crimes in the area for a while had meant that he himself had not met the Forum’s leader before.
‘They all knew Charlie,’ Leigh began, gesturing back to those still behind the cordon, ‘and they’d have said so once they’d got a few things out of their systems. Fifteen years is the blink of an eye to those who’ve spent a lifetime here.’
‘You knew him well?’
‘Charlie was my predecessor as Forum leader, and would have been still had not the death of his daughter undone him as I’ve seen no man before or since undone.’
The man’s every word was emphasised and powerful, Grey appreciating the effect he’d have in his role as public speaker.
‘His family were Scottish Catholics, who came to England to find work. Mine came from Trinidad for much the same reason. I must have first met him, oh, way back in the Sixties. There were jobs here then, industry.’
‘How did you meet?’
‘We were roommates, Inspector, before he got married.’
‘And this was nearby?’
‘Probably not a stone’s throw away, though I couldn’t take you there now.’
‘This was before the Hills were even build, before they were ever conceived of.’
‘And so that’s not where he was running to this evening?’
Leigh shook his head with sadness, ‘He was running to where he’d lived with Eunice; and had nearly got there too.’
‘How do you know that’s the direction he was moving in?’
‘He was coming from the Cedars, wasn’t he?’
‘So, please continue: when you knew Charlie…’
The man began a narrative that didn’t immediately address the question,
‘You’re too young to remember the old Coalville Road. It ran somewhere under where Coalville Lane runs now,’ he describing what Grey knew to be the crooked spine of this part of the estate, ‘and all around here and under our feet leading off it were slums, Inspector, Victorian slums. This town had grown, expanded, opened factories, and yet the workers were clustered up in these same old streets.
‘We formed a group, with Charlie as our driving force, the Coalville Road Residents Association, calling for tenants’ rights and better housing.’
‘Which led to the Hills being built?’
‘Though not without a fight. We got Charlie elected to the Town Council, and from there he could take on the Council itself, challenge them on housing policy.’
‘And they agreed to pay for all this construction work, taking up the whole streetplan?’
‘Charlie was clever: he challenged them on economic grounds, asking how the town’s businesses could expand when there was nowhere for new workers to live?’ The man gave a hollow laugh, ‘Of course, we couldn’t know then that in a manufacturing regard the town was already at its peak.
‘And then of course there were the conservationists: people from nice areas, who didn’t want the buildings torn down.’
‘Why wouldn’t they?’
‘Because the Coalville Road was historic, they said, pre-dated the Industrial Revolution, they said, had some of the oldest buildings in the town. Well, Charlie said to them, if they cared so much then why didn’t they spend more money looking after these building and the people in them.’
‘When was all this?’
‘Oh, it went on for years, Inspector, with campaigns on both sides. We had Labour MPs taking our case to Parliament; while they had a famous writer from London writing impassioned articles, he even claiming one of the houses had been rented by William Ruskin! Well, who could argue with that?’ Campbell Leigh fell back into his car seat laughing.
‘Sorry,’ he eventually said, ‘but I recall those times with joy, Inspector; and I recall my friend with Joy.’ He composed himself. ‘You want to know the year? The vote was passed by the Town Council in Nineteen Seventy-four; Her Highness Princess Anne opened the first part of the new estate in Nineteen Seventy-eight, as evidenced by our plaque you’ll see in daylight; and I am proud to say I’ve lived here since the first flats were finished.’
‘Seventy-four? So what swung it?’
‘Well, she left the Council didn’t she?’
‘Well, your Stella Dunbar, or Councillor Mrs Stella Mars as she was then, she who’d been so opposed.’
Grey did a double-take: Mars had been muted as Stella’s name as some point in her life.
‘You say my Stella Dunbar, so you know we’re investigating her death too?’
‘Yes, I saw it in the evening paper. I was going to go to the Cedars in the morning and offer my condolences.’
‘So you knew she lived there?’
‘I saw her when I first went to visit Charlie there. “So this is who is helping you?” I asked him. I was incredulous — of course we knew someone was doing this for him, as he couldn’t have afforded to move there alone; but her, of all people.’
‘You were surprised because they’d been opposed on the Town Council?’
‘They weren’t just opposed, Inspector, not just Councillors arguing rival points: these pair were implacable. They blocked and counter-blocked every move the other tried to make for years. In Charlie’s eyes Councillor Mrs Mars was delaying the very evolution of his town, harming its working people’s quality of life; while to her Mr Prove, sir as she called him — I can still hear her as if on the floor and I up in the Stranger’s Gallery — Mr Prove, sir was the man who wished no less than to tear out her town’s very heart and history.’
Grey was agog at just how much there was to learn here,
‘There’s so much I need to ask you, Mr Leigh; but I’m mindful of the hour. I don’t want to keep you up any longer, if…’
‘Please, Inspector, at my age I get by on four hour’s sleep — like Margaret Thatcher.’ Again his laughter filled the car. ‘And I will help you,’ he said suddenly serious, ‘if it means I don’t sleep for a week.’
‘Why did Stella leave the council in Seventy-four?’
At this the man’s face stiffened in way Grey could not at first read,
‘You understand, it was always going to have to be that way. Neither one of them would have ever backed down, one would always have to break.’
‘It was an unpleasant business, and I can only repeat the rumours we all heard at the time.’
‘Please, I need to hear everything.’
He shook his head at the thought of them, ‘There was talk of her marriage breaking down; of her standing in the street with her clothes being thrown out at her; of her son in tears, not being picked up from school one day, and she not being seen by the others mothers at the gate ever again.’
‘Who was her husband?’
‘I couldn’t claim to know much of him, only that he was an older man, a sailor I heard, or was it a soldier?’
‘Do you know his name, where they married, where they lived?’
But the man just shook his head, ‘I knew her in the Council Chamber — outside of there she was a mystery to me. In fact, we used to wonder where such a woman came from. I used to think we’d never defeat her.’
‘So she had support among the other Councillors?’
‘They were terrified of her, those respectable men with their pipes and War records, passing the gold chains around once a year, everyone given a go at Mayor. They knew how things ought to be run — this was hardly the era yet of community action. Then suddenly, here were Stella and Charlie, these two young, young people telling — simply instructing — them in their opposite ways of how things were going to be — and the rest hadn’t a clue of where to go. The Council would be deadlocked, till one of them broke.’
‘And it was Stella.’
Again that unreadable look, that Grey began to see as shame, ‘I remember the night it was read out that she’d resigned. We’d been waiting so long; we forced the vote through that session. The first diggers came within the year.’
‘Did you hear any more of her after?’
‘I confess, no.’
‘Yet stories were circulating…’
‘And we did nothing. I admit, we did nothing. We got our vote through, we were very busy then. People do drop out of public life.’
‘But not so notably.’
‘Am I proud of not looking her up, checking if things were bad for her? Probably not. But she’d fought us tooth and nail.’
‘In the political sphere, not the public.’
‘You didn’t know her in a fury, didn’t have those eyes bear down on you.’
No, thought Grey, but he was beginning to get an idea of what it might have felt like from the people he’d been talking to those last few hours.
‘A strong woman in politics can paralyse weak men. We all saw that a few years after.’
‘And then the shock of seeing her all those years later, at Charlie’s new flat.’
‘It was a shock, I didn’t even know she still lived in area.’
‘She hadn’t for a while before coming to the Cedars. She was paying Charlie’s way there.’
‘I guessed as much.’
‘How did it go?’
‘She walked in as we were talking — he always kept an open door. “Mrs Mars,” I said, as polite as you like.’
‘“I don’t go by that name anymore,” she replied. She said no more to me. I think she asked to borrow a book, and that was that.’
‘You didn’t see her again?’
‘I didn’t go there so often, after those early times.’
‘So what did you make of it all?’
‘He did tell me she’d been kind to him, though he’d gone so placid by then that you couldn’t always tell what he meant.’
Grey pondered. ‘Well, thank you, you’ve taken our knowledge of Stella back a good few years.’
‘And what of your knowledge of Charlie?’
‘We’ve only just learnt that there was anything we needed to know of him beyond what linked to Stella.’
‘Did you know him?’
‘No; and I’m afraid events caught up with me before I’d had a chance to speak to him yesterday.’
‘Did you know of Eunice?’
‘I know of her — the Superintendent is reviewing her file as we speak.’
‘You weren’t on the case?’
‘I moved around a few divisions before I settled here.’
‘It was a Scottish lad who done for her, Oscar Skellet — I won’t forget that name. He was a friend of a friend from Glasgow who Charlie agreed to put up when he came this way looking for work. That was the kind of thing he did.’
‘Eunice fell for him?’
‘How did she die?’
‘Pummelled, beaten like an animal. She never regained consciousness.’
‘He fled, I believe, this Skellet?’
‘Was gone the next morning.’
‘Charlie found her?’
‘I pray it had been me.’
‘You say it changed him?’
‘Changed him? It ended him, Inspector. There was more of Charlie lost that night than there was left to lose here this evening. He uncoiled, became hysterical, a different man.’
‘I think I’ve heard that man described.’
‘He was taken in for shock, was as good as kept under for a week, then taken to a psychiatric ward — as strong a man as I’ve known, reduced to that.’
‘It must have been tough for you to see.’
‘Then the nurses told us he’d been discharged, and that he’d found a new flat. He took some tracking down, but he never came back to the Hills from that day.’
Until tonight, thought Grey.
‘And then there was his seat on the Town Council. After three months we knew he wasn’t coming back. I handled it; they let me make a statement on the floor. He received a round of applause.’
‘He must have put in some service by then.’
‘Thirty-one years a Councillor. I was elected to the seat next year.’
The man paused before uttering, ‘ In absentia.’
‘Sorry?’ asked Grey.
‘They both left the Council in absentia, if you read the records. It’s a legal term, it means not there. I think Charlie left the Hills, his home, his friends, his whole life in absentia — he was not there from the day he found his daughter.’
Grey was set to leave, though hopefully to speak to Campbell Leigh again some at some point; yet something niggled, something that he couldn’t leave without somehow broaching. He began,
‘Thank you Mr Leigh, you’ve been very helpful; but, I can’t help wondering… all your and Charlie’s work over the years, your efforts on behalf of your community, your striving to build better housing…’
‘All that, for this?’
‘You see the Hills as a failure?’
Grey knew at that moment that he had said the wrong thing; but the man wasn’t really asking his opinion,
‘People criticise this area, but you should’ve seen what the Hills replaced. That’s what no one understands, Inspector, that we are proud of our community, proud of our estate that others in this town who don’t ever have to set foot in seem so ashamed of. You don’t have the right to tell us whether we should be abashed of ourselves.’
‘Oh, I wasn’t saying…’
‘That was a collective “You”.’
He was a big man to be declaimed at in the confines of a parked car.
‘Here is my constituency office card, call the top number any time. Good luck with your enquiries.’
Grey was left amazed and saddened at the recent social history he had been unaware of.
Chapter 9 — Panic
The scene at the Cedars was no less chaotic than that at the murder site… once Grey got there. Making the walk himself might have seemed obvious by day or even closing time, but not at after two in the morning when even the most welcoming road — let alone the fringes of the Hills — seemed alien, unfamiliar, unknown, a photonegative of the oddness of a silent empty residential street seen in daytime by the person usually out at work. Yet this was where he found himself, passing from the lights and excitement of the Prove scene to disobey the accepted wisdom of those in the town by being alone on the Hills estates after dark (albeit at a time where even the least-constrained kids were likely to have gone home).
The Cedars though was lit up like a Christmas tree, not that that bought any comfort. As Grey came around the side to the backdoor an ambulance passed him to get there first, he finding it where Sergeant Smith and Rachel Sowton were waiting. It being a mild night, a scattering of other residents were also milling around inside and out wrapped in bathrobes or silk dressing gowns.
Cori took Grey to one side to explain; as behind them Mr Carstairs accompanied by his invalid wife, herself being helped by a tireless Ellie, were moved into the back of the waiting emergency transport,
‘Sir, Mr Carstairs woke about midnight with chest pains and erratic breathing, his wife then calling for help that left her exhausted. Rachel called the doctor, and by then the whole building was up.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘The doctor thinks it’s just brought on by the stress of the day, but after sitting with him for a while thought it safest for him to go into hospital overnight. Meanwhile…’
‘After the doctor had come and things had settled down a bit, Rachel went around the rooms to check everyone was all right; and Charlie’s flat was empty. Best guess, the same commotion as woke the others roused him from his sedation. A couple of people saw him up with the rest, but in the melee he must have wondered off on his sleepwalk without being noticed.’
‘But the door… the Constable…’
‘He had gone to help the Carstairs, leaving his post.’
‘Well, that was what he was there for: he heard a woman calling, couldn’t be helped. You said sleepwalk?’
‘Someone up with the commotion saw Charlie heading off down the street outside from their front window. They said he look distracted, dazed, but moving at a pace.’ She leant in and whispered, ‘The residents who were up know we’re looking for Charlie, but not that we’ve found him.’
‘I don’t envy their Duty Manager that task in the morning,’ he said as they moved away from the building to talk.
‘The person who saw him outside didn’t see anything else?’
‘No, sir, they’ve no idea where he went, or why he went there.’
‘I’ve got a bit of an idea. I’ve been talking to the leader of the Hills Estate Community Forum — a role Charlie himself must have held for something like seventeen years — before finding his daughter’s body one morning unhinged him to the point where he couldn’t bear to see his home ever again; until tonight, it seems, when some nightmare impulse, maybe brought on by the pills he’s been put on and by the finding of a second body yesterday morning, brought it all back. He would have woken up tonight half-zonked and disoriented to find another friend, Mr Carstairs, in peril and the Cedars in uproar, and so chose tonight of all nights to go mourning, searching — who knows — after the memory of his dead daughter, dashing away to be clubbed across the back of the head not a minute’s walk from the building he and his beloved Eunice once lived in.’
‘A single blow from behind by a blunt object, yet to be found.’
‘You guess a large, strong individual?’ she asked, echoing their thoughts on Stella’s attacker.
‘Charlie was six foot — I guess from the blow they were at least as tall. That’s only my estimate, mind.’
The officer posted there that night then emerged from the building, and Grey went to speak to him,
‘Everything all right in there?’
‘I think it’s calmed down again now.’
‘Well you did right, rushing to the call. You didn’t see anything of Charlie Prove while this was going on?’
‘No, sir. The corridor was pretty full; half the residents were up. He might have been at the back, or by the staircase.’
‘Yes, I should imagine it would’ve been hard to keep track of anyone in that commotion.’
‘I’ll tell you who I did see though, sir. If you’re interested.’
‘That woman, the manageress,’ explained the Constable, who arrived to this night watch fresh from the station, and so hadn’t been there earlier in the day.
‘Well, I’ve seen her before…’
With the ambulance gone and doctor following it in his car, Ellie took the man from the next-door room to the Carstairs back to bed, saying to the detectives as she went,
‘It’s not that we mollycoddle them, though the families sometimes think we do; it’s that a place like this must be calmer than the world, must have less shocks.’
As he watched her help the old man inside, Grey only hoped to be so cared for in his dotage; while Rachel Sowton, her duties for now fulfilled, came to stand by the detectives as she lit a cigarette, eventually asking,
‘So who of us is next?’
‘Hopefully none of you,’ reassured Cori; though this was undone by her colleague who merely answered,
‘We don’t know.’
‘So no idea why yet either?’
But Grey answered her with a question,
‘I was told that Charlie hadn’t been back to the Hills for fifteen years.’
‘That’s right, as far as I knew.’
‘Did he ever go for walks at night?’
‘No, and that I do know.’
He pondered, ‘And it’s absurd to think he had time between being woken by tonight’s emergency and leaving to either call anyone to tell them he was coming, or receive a call from someone on the Hills asking him to come.’
‘Nor in any fit state to make or understand such a call,’ added the Duty Manager burning her cigarette down to the filter.
‘So if his decision to go there tonight was just a random impulse brought on by the shocks of these two evenings…’
‘…then no one on the Hills was expecting him,’ concluded Cori.
Rachel might have seemed alarmed at this were she not already on full alert these last twenty-four hours, further suggesting, ‘Which means that whoever it was that did that to him followed him from here?’
Grey turned to Cori, ‘I think one of us at least should stay till morning. We might need a bigger presence here by then anyway, if the regional news crews start arriving on the trail of some imagined serial killer.’
‘I have a sofa-bed in my flat I can pull out for one of you,’ offered Rachel Sowton as she snuffed her cigarette out against the doorframe.
‘I’ll stay,’ volunteered Cori. ‘It’s further for me to get home and back by morning anyway.’
But Grey demurred in accepting this arrangement, and this was noticed by Rachel stood beside the officers,
‘Ah, so you’ve learnt where I was yesterday evening? Sergeant, I fear your Inspector is concerned that it would be inappropriate for a female officer to be left with someone of my, shall we say, proclivities?’
‘Not at all,’ he blustered in response. ‘Forgive me if I took a moment to decide whether it was respectful for either of us to accept your offer.’
‘Ah, isn’t he a sweetie?’
Cori smiled, Grey continuing,
‘And I’ve no idea where you were last night, only that one of the Constables recognised you from the raid on Sophia’s last summer.’
Her indignation became real, ‘That “raid” was nothing more than some old biddy of a neighbour not liking what she thought we were getting up to in there; and nearly losing my friend her licence in the process.’
‘Well then, we must have found something when we went in,’ he said before he caught himself.
‘Not enough to get a dog stoned, Inspector; but obviously you’ve got no real criminals to catch, so go for the weirdoes, eh?
Grey didn’t know what to say to that, speaking instead a moment after to Cori, ‘Anyway, it makes more sense for it to be me staying, as you need a good sleep in your own bed: you’ve got a concentrating day ahead of you tomorrow.’
‘Starting at the library’s records office, looking up the histories of Stella Mars’ and Charlie Prove’s time as Town Councillors.’
‘They were on the Council?’ asked Rachel, the woman who’d known and worked with both for fifteen years.
‘Yes, both starting in the Sixties, Charlie till he came here.’
‘And you said Stella Mars?’
‘Well that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow: seeing if our researcher has found anything out of Stella’s marriage to Samuel Mars, rumoured ex-sailor and not-altogether-wonderful husband by the sounds of it.’
‘A marriage too?’ The revelations were coming thick and fast now for Rachel. ‘I guessed she had been wed at some point. And how did you..?’
‘In an extraordinary conversation with a man who knew them years ago — and that’s not all, I think he hinted at “school gates” and “other mothers”.’
‘She had a child?’
‘If she had then Sarah will have found it out by now. I need to write all this down before I forget it.’
‘I have pens and paper, I’ll see you inside,’ said Rachel turning for her office/apartment.
‘You’ve been busy,’ said Cori as they stood outside alone now.
‘Pure luck,’ he countered, ‘and I wish the same for you tomorrow. Have a lie in, then call me once you’re there.’
But before Cori left, Grey paused her to ask one more thing,
‘What Rachel said. You knew about her inclinations — you weren’t surprised?’
‘It was just a feeling, sir. Nothing you could pin down. Well, goodnight sir.’
And there she left him, the town’s detective, and he hadn’t a clue.
In the dayroom he found a lamp had been moved for him to cast a pool of amber light over a desk bearing an A4 pad and variety of pens. As he moved to sit down before it, the Duty Manager returned to place pillows and a duvet over a nearby easy chair; she saying as she did so,
‘I’ve upset you, haven’t I?’
‘It takes a lot to upset me.’
‘Maybe if you knew that I regretted what I said the moment I’d said it?’
‘Well, you don’t have to.’
‘I am upset though, about the raid on Sophia’s.’
‘Maybe after all this is over I can ask our Community Policing officers to look into it.’
‘Thank you. So what about you, seeing as we’re talking life choices?’
‘Sorry?’ he answered, caught off guard.
‘Married, girlfriend, single?’
‘Well don’t worry, you’re not the only one. I don’t suppose the job helps?’
‘Or maybe it suits?’ she added cryptically. ‘I sometimes wonder if mine gives me an excuse not to settle down with someone? Still, better to be frustrated outside of a relationship than in it, at least then no one else gets hurt.’
‘Quite,’ he answered, not sure which of the two of them she was talking about, nor if he’d ever thought of it in exactly that way.
She went out for a minute and returned with a mug,
‘You know, Inspector, you can’t be a nice guy in a tough world and expect the rest of that world to be as nice back to you. On which note, here’s a cup of hot chocolate.’
And with that she was gone, smiling sadly as she closed the door behind her.
Chapter 10 — Morning and Raine Again
The hard-backed chair proved oddly comfortable, and Grey had soon begun writing his notes of the conversation with Campbell Leigh. After half an hour though he knew that whatever he hadn’t got down by then he would have to trust to memory, and cutting the light moved to the easy chair.
Lying there he thought deeply on the mystery surrounding the building he now quite fittingly found himself residing in. How frustrating that the body needed sleep and that the world shut down for the night, when there was so much he felt mere hours away from learning — of Stella’s marriage, and of she and Charlie’s time as Councillors. He would know it soon though; indeed may already have some of that intel waiting for him at the office if Sarah had stayed late at her desk that evening; while Cori would find her portion out tomorrow.
Grey summed up what he had though: two people killed in different but equally brutal and simplistic ways — ways simple for this killer as they were evidently strong and could rely on overpowering with hands or killing with one blow. A woman could be just as cruel a killer, but this suspect was a man, Grey was becoming certain. The picture formed itself in all but face: tall, broad-shouldered, thick-armed. Going on their best guesses so far, then the killer could get themself into a building at night unnoticed, and could track Charlie all the way from the Cedars to the Hills Estate before striking; nor were they squeamish at death, seemingly as at liberty to get themselves out of these situations as into them, without a hint of hysteria at the horrors they had caused or panic leaving careless clues behind.
He made another assumption: that unless they had retained terrific strength into old age then they were not of the victim’s generation; nor he expected residents of the home, which, though this was a generalisation, seemed as caring and friendly a place as he could imagine. What of the staff: Rachel, Ellie? Similarly ridiculous.
What else could he suppose? A criminal background? There was little technique in the killer’s methods, but they were carried out quickly and cleanly, with a minimum of fuss; but where was the theft, the gain, the reason any criminal would need to risk such action? Military then? A background in battle might indeed account for their acceptance of death and calmness in killing — a soldier gone bad could be a terrifying thing. Then Grey caught himself — had the suggestion that Stella’s husband had been in the Services influenced his train of thought along this track? Anyway, he had purportedly been a sailor, and they weren’t trained to kill in close quarters, were they? And from what Campbell Leigh had said, if alive then her husband would be older than the Cedars residents by now.
He tried to get the picture these thoughts formed into as clear a focus as possible; yet as always with such speculation he knew that it could gain nothing, leading you along as many wrong roads as right, while forming conclusions that may be swept away with the next piece of hard evidence — whatever that may turn out to be.
The next morning he woke to find the first residents down for breakfast. Perhaps having someone fast asleep beside you as you ate was commonplace here, but still…
Ellie, fixing trays to arms of chairs for bowls and plates to sit on, broke from this task to bring him a cup of coffee, leaning over and whispering,
‘We’re going to tell them about Charlie in a bit; best you’re not here, just familiar faces.’
Grey noted that the coffee, though properly made, was in a cardboard cup. He took the hint and taking his notes with him left that dedicated woman to her ministrations.
Stopping home only for a shower and change of clothes, he arrived at the station early to find his office door locked. He hoped this meant that something had been left for him, as he normally kept nothing confidential there; and sure enough upon entering found a card file left on his desk bearing a sticky note from Sarah,
‘ Marriage details enclosed, copy of certificate in the post. Dentist’s appointment, be in later, Sarah. ’
Assuming the last part referred to herself, which given that Sarah’s teeth always seemed to Grey like two bands of ivory then he couldn’t imagine what work she needed doing, he sat down to read the folder’s contents. The print out, taken from a computerised archive of paper documents, confirmed the name Samuel Mars and his profession: which far from sailor (which was always unlikely in such land-locked country) instead read “Teacher”. They had been married in the church in town in June, Nineteen Sixty-five.
‘You qualified in Sixty-three,’ Grey muttered. ‘You met him teaching, you married two years later.’
‘Am I interrupting, sir?’ This was Sarah, just arrived.
‘I thought you were late in?’
‘It is nine thirty.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is. Thank you for finding this.’
‘There’s more, sir.’
He turned to the second printed page, and found the system had cleverly — if bleakly — linked the record of marriage to that of their divorce.
‘Nineteen Seventy-four — the year she left the Council in absentia,’ he recalled Campbell Leigh’s phrase, ‘and pitched up at Tudor Oak Independent School still under the name Mars.’
‘But look at the reason, sir.’
‘”Abandonment”; and as it’s he who lodged proceedings, then does that mean that it was she who abandoned him?’
‘We’ll find out when the copies of the original records arrive, boss.’
‘And there’s something else: I think there might have been at least one child.’
‘Well, we know the name and the timespan now which helps; and as we know they lived locally I’ll get going through the town records this morning, save having to send away for a copy.’
‘You might find the Sergeant there.’
Just then the office phone rang, Grey answering,
It was reception, ‘Inspector, there’s a Mrs Rossiter and Miss Painter here, with financial records you asked to see? They said you were expecting them this morning.’
Raine Rossiter, with the paperwork of the flat transactions. Grey had quite forgotten about them.
‘Show them up, please, and ask want drinks they want.’
He passed the file to Sarah, ‘Keep these safe.’ Just then the phone rang again.
‘I can’t answer it here.’
‘Leave is, sir, and it will trip over to the mess room. I can answer it there.’ And with that she left to take the message, just as the two women were shown up to the Inspector’s office.
‘Hello, Inspector. ‘
‘You remember Andrea, she helped me gather our records together.’
Andrea was indeed the one holding the document box. Drinks and biscuits were soon brought into the sunlit office.
So close were the public offices of Southney situated to each other, that in her short walk between the police station and library, and across the gardens that formed something of a town square, Sarah Cobb also passed the civic buildings where unbeknown to her their two murder victims had once met to debate the future of their town; a future Sarah’s generation took for granted as their unavoidable present, with the notions that the present town they lived in had ever been decided on or that different decisions might have been made back then both quite absent from her mind. The Inspector had once tagged his researcher an “Easy optimist”, and had done so with envy.
‘Morning,’ chirped Sarah to the librarian at the front desk. ‘Births, marriages and deaths?’
‘Hello, dear. I’ll buzz you through.’
A frequent visitor, Sarah had no need now to introduce herself or explain her business, as the lady she knew by now to be the Senior Librarian took her through a pass-carded door from the public areas and down to where the town archive and the records of next-door’s registry office were kept for those who asked and were authorised to see it.
‘Any era in particular?’
‘Sixty-five to Seventy-four.’
‘I might know the name for you.’
Sarah had come to regard the Senior Librarian’s memory as a parallel archive, formed from a lifetime lived in the neighbourhood.
‘Mars, the child or children of Samuel and Stella Mars.’
The woman’s face went white, ‘Well, I don’t know what anyone would want to go looking up that woman for. A boy, mid-Sixties, start here.’ She slapped a scratched dark-green filing cabinet and left the police researcher to her task.
Brough Smith thought all his Sundays had come at once to find his wife still in bed with him as the sun poured over them to wake him that morning. An evening showerer and late riser, he had grown used to Cornelia being long-gone by the time he came around to that lazy half-consciousness that, as overseeing Regional Manager for the firm he worked for, he was under no pressure to have to rush to interrupt. The presence of Karolina in the house made his role of a morning even easier, it now reduced to an equal pleasant episode of hugs and chatter and issuing such generic instructions as “Eat your breakfast” and “Get your coat on” as the children left for school; while their combined maid and nanny did all the actual work.
His wife’s phone ringing in the dead of night and her returning to bed in the early hours were events only half-acknowledged at the time and already forgotten, leaving her presence there now a inexplicable surprise,
‘Have you been fired or what?’ he issued lazily.
‘No, I quit. I told them my husband missed me too much in the mornings.’
‘Too true,’ he might have said had not some impulse even in his half-awake mind known it to be too close to what was better left unspoken. Instead he went with, ‘The maid can manage the kids’; and taking a slurred swig from his bedside glass of water, pulled the duvet over the pair of them.
‘It is such terribly sad news about Mr Prove’s death.’
Raine Rossiter said this, thought Grey, as if he’d died choking on a pretzel. In the warm light of morning the horror of last night seemed a long way away.
‘You think it might be the same person responsible? Well, I wish you all speed in finding them.’
‘Indeed,’ he concurred.
‘Now, to the documents. I know you are more than authorised to see these, Inspector, though it does give me a shiver to bring such papers out of the office.’
As the solicitor spoke her sidekick Andrea opened the legal box, handing Grey the records as cued.
‘Firstly, you asked about the will of Stella’s aunt.’
Grey was passed what looked like a prop in a Dickensian dramatisation, a scroll bound in ribbon and which once unfurled was written in calligraphic script and sealed with a wax stamp at the top.
‘This was written many years before she died. You’ll see she was as thorough as her niece in managing her affairs. She had no children, nor Stella siblings, and so all went to Stella. The amount of liquid assets isn’t mentioned there, but I can tell you that as well as the flat already paid for, Stella inherited something like fifty thousand pounds, which only increased as various policies and investments matured.’
‘Hence how she got by on tutoring.’
‘Next, the deeds of that first flat, and the paperwork of its transfer in accordance with the terms of the will; and here those of it’s later sale enabling Stella to buy the flat on the second floor. You’ll notice the prices of each were not too different, enabling her to move without recourse to the bulk of her savings…’
Grey was no legal man himself, but could see nothing obviously wrong in the procession of documents passing before him; though he wondered why the women were going into such detail.
‘Here are the deeds for the second flat, and also invoices for the moving of her furniture, the transfer of insurance policies…’ On and on it went. ‘The bill of works for the GPO rerouting her phoneline; and then of course the deeds for Charlie’s flat, the costs of which, as we told you yesterday, Stella was covering for him in an act of benevolence.’
‘Of course, I’ve no problem with that. I’ve had it confirmed by friends that she was touched by his story.’
‘So, if there was anything else..? I’d be glad to get these back and locked up again as soon as possible. Of course we can arrange to have copies made of anything you may need, with promises made of their confidential keeping of course.’
Andrea was already gathering the papers back up into the box when it clicked in Grey’s mind what they were doing,
‘Hold up. Put those down a second.’
Andrea, crestfallen, loosed her grip on the papers.
‘Now, I’ve hardly had a chance to think of our first meeting since yesterday, and was up half the night dealing with other matters; but something niggled me after we spoke and it’s only just come back to me now seeing all this paperwork; this superfluous paperwork, for the most important document is the one you haven’t bought here to show me and which you haven’t even mentioned. The will is fine, Stella’s flats are fine, but Charlie’s…’
‘But Inspector, the deeds.’ Raine looked nervously at Andrea as the latter passed that last document back to the Inspector.
‘And what will these tell me,’ he continued, ‘given a chance to look at them properly? That the flat exists, and that someone — Stella, the Trust or even Charlie — have the leasehold? But what you haven’t brought me are the documents of the sale or the transfer of ownership; and is that because you don’t want me to see them, or that they don’t exist?’
He saw the pain in Raine’s eyes, and deeply regretted causing it; yet her lack of answer meant he must go on, albeit in a calmer tone,
‘The issue that niggled me, I see now, wasn’t with Stella’s own moves and manoeuvrings around the building or even with the fact that she was also paying Charlie’s way, but that what she was paying was his Trust subscriptions, rent, service charge to the building’s owners possibly… and nothing more.
‘Your words yesterday, what were they? “He was given — given — a flat to rent”. But given it by whom? The Trust don’t own the building, the landlords do. The Trust only own Rachel Sowton’s flat and another they use for cooking and laundry. The Cedars is a community of private tenants; so how did Stella and your father have a flat to rent to Charlie?’
Seeing her flinch at the mention of the elder Rossiter, Grey recognised that he was the source of his daughter’s discomfort.
‘Now, this trick you’ve just attempted of blinding me with paper only confirms there is something hidden here. So please, tell me what troubles you.’
‘There was a tenant, Miss Wood, who died — quite conveniently, you might say, though I wouldn’t — just before the whole Charlie Prove saga. She had signed the Trust agreement, but hardly lived to see it enacted. I’d met her when I visited the Cedars with my father: she was a lovely old lady, had a thumb that had deformed and couldn’t straighten. She’d lived there for years, treated the Cedars as her world, her community. She was an embodiment of the Trust spirit before the Trust was even formed; and so it seems quite natural that when she died it turned out that she had left her flat and all in it “for the benefit and continuation of the Cedars Trust”.’
‘You remember the exact phrase?’
‘How could I forget it, with the difficulty my father had of interpreting it? This was at the very start of the Trust, before we began making sure everyone had a clearly written will, that a list of closest relations was kept updated, and had had the proviso added to the tenants’ contract that in the event of a death the Trust would handle the sale of a tenant’s flat if we didn’t hear otherwise from the family.
‘Yet Miss Wood had no beneficiary: no husband, children, siblings — her brother had died in the War, would you believe. My father found himself in the situation of having on his hands a flat within the Cedars that no one owned; yet neither in all professional honesty was he able to interpret the phrase “for the benefit and continuation of the Cedars Trust” as meaning “ willed to the Cedars Trust”.
‘What should he have done?’
‘He should have referred it to the Treasury as bona vacantia.’
‘ Vacant goods — it’s the legal term for ownerless property.’
‘Then various processes are entered into which might have take years; and which if the state still couldn’t find an inheritor could have ended in a public auction with the proceeds going to the Treasury, which is the last thing anyone would have wanted…’
‘…because you’d have lost control of the flat?’
‘…because then no one would have benefited; just some dodgy landlord somewhere probably, wanting to put three students in there, and going against all our rules of tenant acceptability. How would that have honoured Miss Woods’ wishes?’
‘So, Stella bullied your father into instead renting the place to Charlie, when he was never even sure it was the Trust’s to rent?’
‘It was a chartable act — the rent barely covered our costs of collecting it. Nor could you say it wasn’t the solution closest to Mrs Woods’ intentions. Nor could you even say that had we argued the case then the Treasury Solicitor wouldn’t have awarded us the leasehold.’
‘But you weren’t prepared to take the risk…’
Her silence said it all.
‘So,’ the Inspector mused, ‘this ultra-orderly process for the transition of assets has so far resulted in two legal nightmares, neither as it stands resolved?’
‘That’s only twice in fifteen years, Inspector, and with innumerable amicable handovers in-between.’
The three of them sat in gloomy silence, before Raine Rossiter concluded bleakly,
‘Anyway, I promise you it will all be cleared up within the year.’
Grey was glad to here it, having precisely no desire to have to refer this to Financial Crimes or whichever unit in a neighbouring city would have such a situation fall under its remit.
She continued, ‘Forgive me for saying it, but now Stella isn’t here to block the sale then Mrs Cuthbert’s flat next door to hers can be cleared of its… foliage and offered to the next on the waiting list; while Stella’s own will is to be read after the funeral, but I can tell you now that it instructs quite clearly and unambiguously for her flat and other assets to be transferred directly to the Trust.’
‘And so Charlie’s flat?’
‘That is another matter. Once Charlie was installed then my father’s doubts became rather past-tense.’
‘And with Charlie gone too?’
‘Then as soon as he’s buried I go to the Treasury Solicitor.’
‘And if they ask why you didn’t go to them fifteen years ago?’
‘Then I can do a bad thing, Inspector: I can claim the previous decision to be one made many years ago by a now-retired solicitor and a now-deceased Trustee, their actions a best attempt at doing the right if naive thing.’
‘Thank you for being honest.’
‘Thank you for believing me.’
The meeting at a natural conclusion, he gestured to the door,
‘I’ll show you out,’ yet as he stood he had a flash of memory, saying,
‘” RR, No Appointment. ”’
‘Sorry?’ asked Raine, also rising.
‘Stella’s diary — she had a system of initialling names. RR is you, of course, I’ve just realised; so did you know she was coming to see you on Tuesday morning?’
‘The morning after she died? No. I swear. Andrea, was there anything..?’
‘There was nothing in the book,’ the receptionist confirmed, ‘but then didn’t you just say “No appointment”?’
‘Would she normally have called before seeing you?’ he asked Raine.
‘Yes: I can be out and about, I’m not always in the office.’
‘Then she decided to visit you the next day, deciding after working hours on the evening before; which was the night she died.’
‘What can that mean?’
‘I don’t know yet; but when I do I swear I’ll let you know.’
With the two women and their treasured archive box safely escorted back through reception (and refusing the offer of a Constable to drop it back at the office for them) Grey returned to his desk, where he thought awhile before chasing his other leads. The finances of the Cedars were indeed a tangled mess, with Stella and Charlie squarely at the centre of them; but there was surely not enough here to warrant a motive for murder, was there? Yet in investigating their finances he had learnt so much about them both: Stella with her determination to always do what she thought was right, and this often leaving others in difficult situations; and as for Charlie… well, Grey wasn’t sure the man could have saved himself from destitution without Stella’s help — and all this for the man she had once battled across the floor of the Council Chamber, and who as chief advocate for the new estate she so opposed must have seemed to her no less than the destroyer of her town.
This case was getting nowhere, only into deeper waters. Opening the blinds to let more sun in, the Inspector leant his head back and closed his eyes.
Chapter 11 — An Administrative Oversight
‘You’re friend’s already down there,’ said the Senior Librarian, grumpily opening the door to the archive floor. Sergeant Smith went downstairs to see Sarah already at the desks turning to greet her.
‘Hi Cori,’ — as Sarah called her; for while Boss suited fine for the Inspector, Cori thought Ma’am sounded ridiculously formal for herself.
‘Hi Sarah. What is up with her?’
‘I think I upset her mentioning Stella.’
‘She sure could rub people up the wrong way.’
‘Oh, and I’ve a message for you.’ (This was from the phonecall transferred from the Inspector’s office earlier.) ‘You had a call from a Mrs Foreshore of the Southney School, she had some names for you which I promised to pass on.’
‘Oh, excellent, let me grab a pen… go on.’
Sarah related eagerly (as Cori transferred the details to her notebook),
‘She said that Stella Dunbar had been tutoring a lad last year, got him into an interview with an Oxford college apparently, but that obviously he’d since left town; but that this year there are only two girls who the teachers there knew about, but that they do matched the initials you gave her: a Stacie Kehoe and an Esther Night; both fourteen, in the same class, friends so their teachers believe; and that the long-dark-haired one is definitely Esther Night.’
It was moments like this that make a detective’s job worthwhile.
‘And they had contact numbers at the school office?’
Cori’s enthusiasm was to be short lived however: the number for the Kehoes bringing the news that their daughter was at school, only for the school to then say she’d not been in that day; meanwhile the Nights’ phone gave only a standard answerphone announcement, to which Cori told her story and asked for an urgent reply.
At the Inspector’s door was a mixed pair of Constables fresh from the mess room.
‘You asked for background checks?’ the young man reminded him. Grey knew he had requested checks recently, but couldn’t immediately remember of whom.
‘I looked up Rachel Sowton for you, sir,’ began his partner, who Grey had seen around the office with her counterpart and had wondered if they weren’t an item out of uniform. ‘She was cautioned for drugs eight years ago, and has been noted at various libertarian rallies in London.’
‘Do we keep a note of things like that?’
‘We have to these days, sir.’
‘The electoral role has her at the Cedars for sixteen years, before then at various flats around town.’
‘That’s it really. I’m afraid there’s even less for Derek Waldron: no police record, no wrong doing; though he is listed on the Internet as a member of various recognised professional bodies.’
‘Architecture, sir. Civil engineering.’
‘I never did ask him what he’d done for a living.’
‘He’s been at the Cedars even longer, previously had his own house in town.’
‘Hardly Bonnie and Clyde are they.’
‘Not really, sir,’ she laughed.
But like minnows in the wake of a shark they disappeared as the footsteps of the Superintendent sounded behind them in the corridor,
‘Grey, my office?’
‘Eunice Prove, Eunice Prove,’ Superintendent Rose began once he and his Senior Investigative Officer were in his office, door closed. ‘You didn’t work on it, did you Grey?’
‘I think I was on another division at the time.’
‘The things they have us investigate, the animals they have us round up and try to keep penned.’
‘Your girl Sarah had found the file out of archive for you, but I took it from her as you weren’t here — it all came back to me reading it last night. I’ve just come back from the Assistant Chief Constable’s Office, by the way. You know I’ll be back there every day to give updates until these murders are sorted out?’
Grey took the hint. The Super continued,
‘A girl found bludgeoned — there’s no other word for it — bludgeoned in her own home, probably in broad daylight.’
‘Found by her father, I’ve been told,’ asked Grey as Rose passed him the file.
‘Indeed, though there was nothing like a coherent statement ever taken from him at the time — and you say it’s Stella Dunbar who’s been looking after him ever since?’
‘Seems like it, sir.’
‘This was as uncultured an attack as that on her father.’
‘Yet messier, more frenzied it sounds,’ mused Grey.
‘But the Eunice case doesn’t help us.’
‘This Oscar Skellet. Well, he turned up again, up to something like his old tricks.’
‘The boyfriend who fled back over the border?’
‘Well, it was presumed so, though the local police up there never found him. Anyway, he has since turned up: in Shotts Prison, jailed three years ago for three counts of aggravated assault.’
‘No, during a burglary of a warehouse at night. An amateur affair it reads like,’ the Super was now scanning a different set of printouts. ‘Apparently his colleagues testified against him, admitting to robbery and just trying to get off the assault charges. It looks as though that was never a part of the plan — easy in and easy out — but when they were disturbed this fellow Skellet went haywire, left a security guard and two others who answered the alarm in hospital, one of whom hasn’t worked since. Apparently his mates had known Oscar for years, didn’t know he had it in him.’
‘Which makes you wonder at what occurred during those last minutes with Eunice. But…’ Grey’s mind was working through the logistics. ‘But why weren’t we informed of his capture? Even before these two new murders, we had the Eunice Prove file open and unsolved with him listed as a key witness, if not as a suspect.’
‘An administrative oversight.’ The Super shook his head, ‘The fact had gotten lost in the system that we wanted him too. It happens, Grey. The Assistant Chief Constable has spoken to his counterpart up there and our paperwork is being sent to them now; and at least he’s inside in the meantime.’
‘But no help to us.’
‘Not in this case, no. Any other suspects?’
‘None obvious; but honestly, her life is like an onion and we’ve barely started peeling.’
‘I’ve never known one so repressed. And as for Charlie, I’m not sure he’s belonged to the world since Eunice died.’
‘I’m told the Cedars Manager has form?’
‘Rachel Sowton? Minor stuff, and years ago. She loves the residents, would die for them I’d say.’
‘We’ve seen people kill family when they think it’s best.’
‘I don’t get any feeling about her at all.’
‘No, no, it doesn’t fly for me either.’
Grey shook his head, ‘That place is based on insulation. A member of staff described it to me last night as being somewhere with “less shocks than the world”, no noise, no bumps, no jolts. Neither victim seem to have been up to much once there, bar a bit of tutoring in Stella’s case — and we’ll have spoken to both of her current pupils by the end of the day, I hope.’
‘So it’s all over something that happened years before?’
‘But how far are back we going? Charlie’d been their fifteen years, Stella twenty-four.’
‘They knew each other before though?’
‘Yes, it seems so; but from what we’ve heard they were enemies during their time on the Council, fiercely opposed.’
‘Which only makes it more confusing. You’re confident it’s the same killer?’
‘There’s no reason why they couldn’t be, from what little we can deduce: tall, strong, cautious getting there and getting away.’
‘And absolutely no witnesses?’
‘They picked a busy building to enter to attack Stella, but struck either while everyone else was watching a TV program or had gone to bed; and then an equally busy estate to strike Charlie, but after midnight when even the most rebellious kids would have gone home.’
Rose pondered, ‘You say chose, but they didn’t choose the time for the second attack exactly, did they.’
The Inspector could sometimes forget that the Superintendent had himself been an officer: working through the uniformed and traffic divisions, as opposed to the investigative branch he himself had chosen, yet getting on to his elevated role through sheer effort and earned respect. No number of meetings with the Assistant Chief Constable could diminish that or take from the man’s experience. And here, despite all that was going on, he had found a chink of light in areas Grey could not fathom.
‘You mean, of course,’ the Inspector clarified for himself, ‘that though the killer picked the best moment to take on Charlie, they couldn’t have known when the disturbance with the ill resident on the ground floor would break out, when Charlie would be off down the road unguarded to follow. That is interesting.
‘You know, this follows on from something we were saying with Rachel Sowton last night: that if no one could have been expecting him at the Hills then he must have been followed from the Cedars; only I hadn’t thought it through, as if the killer couldn’t have known Charlie would be outside and vulnerable at that time then that means — what? — that they were stalking the place, awaiting an opportunity?’
Rose concurred, ‘It might not have been too difficult to have hung around outside there unnoticed, what with everything going on there lately, and watching out for comings and goings, lights turning on and off. I don’t know.’
The conversation hung on this point awhile, Grey’s mind working through the possibilities; but the Super’s logic held, he further suggesting,
‘Perhaps they intended to play the same trick they had the night before with Stella… before seeing the Constable watching the backdoor.’
‘Maybe,’ answered Grey distractedly.
‘There’s no internal suspects, you’re sure?’ his boss asked. ‘As it would suit them to attack him away from the Cedars, to draw attention away from themselves.’
‘Apart from the Duty manager, the only other non-resident in the building last night was the orderly, Ellie — who lives nearby and was there in ten minutes — who were both at Mr Carstairs’ side the whole time.’
‘Well, I’ll still have someone check down the staff list. It’s no use getting sentimental: they may be caring for old folk, but someone’s killing those old folk one by one, and no one’s better placed to do so than the staff.’
Rose shuffled the papers back into order, ‘You’ll call me the moment you’ve spoken to the girls Stella was tutoring?’
‘Will do.’ Grey got up and left.
A mysterious outsider… was that the best they could come up with, asked Grey to himself as he walked back to his office… and one presumably concluding some sixteen-years-delayed vendetta? It might as well have been Jack the Ripper back from the dead. Meanwhile every one of them left in that building was terrified.
Back at the library, Sarah waited till she had the certificate in her hands before quietly calling Cori over. She had found reference to the birth on the system almost as soon as she’d begun looking, choosing in the end to start not at the green filing cabinet but at the nearby computer terminals (as she could have from the station), favouring this method to ploughing through the drawers of date-ordered papers. Had she more to go on than, ‘A boy, mid-Sixties’ then she may well have started with the physical records, but a product of the computer age, information flowed easiest for her through a screen.
‘“Patrick Mars”,’ read Sarah from the document as she handed it to the Sergeant, ‘“Father: Samuel Mars, Mother: Stella Mars”, and born in Sixty-seven, so forty-five now.’
Cori was impressed, ‘Call the boss and let him know, won’t you. Oh, and can you give him the names we’ve found for the schoolgirls.’
Going out through the fire escape to make her call, Sarah passed on the information to the Inspector, who responded,
‘Good work, then get back here and put him through our computer and the DVLA. Oh, and did Cori have any luck tracing the two girls?’
Reading from the details scratched down in her notebook, Grey listened then noted,
‘The Kehoes live on Coalville Lane, you say? That’s the Hills estates. I wonder… I’ll see you back here.’
‘Catch up then, sir,’ she said, before returning to the quiet building to pick up her things.
Cori, since arriving at the library had moved to another area in the basement, one she and colleagues had less call to visit in their police researches. Given the lack of assistance from the now rather rubbed-up Senior Librarian, she had been left to her own resources to locate what she was looking for.
‘Can I help you?’ asked a man already sat in that neglected corner. Apart from the brightly lit desks it was hard to see anything in a room where the thin, pavement-level windows that ran along the seam of the ceiling were of little use on even such a bright morning.
‘Do you work here?’ she asked.
‘No, though it can feel like it sometimes. What are you looking for?’
‘Sergeant Smith,’ she produced her badge, ‘I need the records of two past Town Councillors.’
‘Tim Hart, historian.’ His stuck his hand out and they shook. ‘Engaged in purely academic researches.’
A kind of panic at learning a person was police officer was a common reaction amongst people who’d never have dreamt of committing a crime, and always left Cori reassured.
‘I have accreditation from the University of East Anglia here somewhere,’ he continued.
‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure you’ve every right to be here. Now, you were going to help me find these Councillors?’
‘Well, you’ve two options,’ he said getting up from his desk to demonstrate. ‘These cabinets here are the records of debates and decisions, so useful if you know the dates of when your Councillors spoke; but if it’s an overview you’re looking for then you could do worse than finding the Councillors’ Directory for the year you think they left and reading what will either be a resignation, final speech, hagiography or eulogy.’
‘One left in Seventy-four, the other Ninety-six or — seven maybe, both in ast… ’
‘ In absentia, eh? They didn’t die or resign, just never came back?’
‘That’s right: one was having a tough time at home; the other you’d call ill health I suppose.’
‘What a pair. Well, here’s your first book; and here’s the second. Happy reading.’
Thanking him, and taking her books to a desk she thought a polite distance away, Cori lost herself in images of coiffured men in gowns and tweeded ladies from the pages of Country Life. The Councillors’ Directory was a kind of yearbook, issued after each election and offering little more than a photo beside a thumbnail portrait of each current Councillor — important for anyone at the Council or elsewhere involved, when there were local elections each year and all would need to bid for re-election every three years. Most importantly for her purposes though was a section in tribute to those Councillors who’d that year died or left or were otherwise of note… and sure enough in the Directory of Nineteen Ninety-seven was a piece, written by his ‘dear friend’, as he described himself, ‘Councillor Campbell Leigh (Coleville Lane Ward)’ on the recently withdrawn from public service ‘Councillor Charles Prove (retired) MBE’.
Looking from the window of a nearby vacant office, his own looking out only onto neighbouring buildings, Grey was taking these last moments to think as he watched eagerly for the return of his Administrative Assistant across the town square. They would then begin their search for Stella’s son, this new and unknown player, or potential player, in their drama. At he watched from his office eyrie overlooking the civic gardens, he saw Sarah emerge from her expected corner of the square to walk diagonally across the green toward the police station; as from the opposite side another figure approached in a direction that made it seem likely he would enter the Station reception area just ahead of her.
In the moments before he went down to meet Sarah Grey watched this man, something about him commanding his attention: perhaps the fact that he didn’t know him, yet in his determined walking he clearly had important business to conduct here today.
Grey left the office and went down the stairs to enter the mess room, as they called it, where their back-office staff mingled with officers fresh off the beat and writing their reports. By the key-coded doors that led to reception Grey waited for Sarah; yet she didn’t come through, he instead seeing her through the doors’ inset strengthened glass panels waiting at the other side, as if observing something going on in there. Eventually she appeared to greet him,
‘Patrick Mars,’ she said.
‘Yes, you found his birth certificate. Thank you.’
‘No, I mean he’s already here.’
Chapter 12 — Patrick Mars
The Inspector passed through the doors to where the man was talking with the Desk Sergeant in reception, his frame imposing the room. Grey never had a worry of losing initiative in situations, of allowing others to dominate or gain any upper hand. Naturally taciturn when tense, and quite happy to let another talk till they were dry, he knew — simply knew, there was no psychological training behind it — that his personality was strong enough to bear any influence and still be as diamond-tough the moment he had chance to speak himself. And so he had no concern that it was the man who introduced himself, who put his hand out to shake, though on the Inspector’s patch.
‘Inspector Rase. Mr Mars, you have our deepest sympathy.’
‘So you know, I’m the son of Stella Mars.’
‘Dunbar,’ corrected Grey as neutrally as possible.
‘That was her maiden name.’
‘She divorced your father, I believe.’
‘He divorced her.’
‘Why don’t we move this to one of the interview rooms.’
‘Oh, I’m not here to be interviewed.’
‘I only mean as a witness to your mother’s life. Unless an appointment later is more convenient?’
He threw open his hands in a gesture of unavoidable contrition, ‘I knew you’d want to talk to me. That’s why I came.’
‘Sergeant, could you show Mr Mars to the most comfortable room and fetch him a drink. There are procedures to follow, I’ll be with you in just a few minutes.’
As the Desk Sergeant led Patrick Mars off and away through the security doors and into the inner sanctum of the police station, from the now vacated reception Grey checked himself and his reactions: quickened breathing, clattering heart-rate, clammy hands, his shirt damp with fresh perspiration beneath his suit jacket. He found his phone and pressed the buttons to get it calling.
‘East Anglia?’ the Sergeant was asking Tim Hart in the library.
‘The University of East Anglia, you said. You’re a long way from home.’
‘Well, so was Charles Quale, the founder of the first telegraph office in Norwich, when he arrived there after leaving these parts.’
‘So that’s who you’re looking up?’
But any hope at further conversation was interrupted by her phone’s urgent ringing. Without a librarian nearby, she risked answering it there and then, though speaking extra-quietly,
‘Cori? You still at the library?’
‘Yes, looking up Council records.’
‘Forget it, get here in five minutes.’
Tim Hart saw her new expression,
‘No, but I do have to leave this, just as I was getting started.’
He considered, then offered, ‘Look, I’m pretty much done here for today. Give me your names and dates and I’ll drop something in for you later.’
Pausing only to scribble the names and thank him, Cori left to meet the Inspector at the station.
‘The most comfortable room’ found for Patrick Mars by the Desk Sergeant was in fact the interview room with the mirrored one-way glass wall, which by the time the Inspector had freshened up and arrived at the viewing area the other side of that wall, found its occupants already comprised the Superintendent as well as what must have been most of the staff not at that moment unavoidably employed around the station.
Sergeant Smith appeared right behind him,
He led her back to the corridor and to the window inset within the door to the interview room proper,
‘Patrick Mars, Stella’s son.’
‘Why’s he come?’
‘Lord knows. Sarah already had his name, we were seconds from calling him.’
Inspector Glass, the head of Southney station’s uniformed division, was also there, whispering in his counterpart’s ear,
‘Is that Patrick Mars?’
‘Yes, you know him?’
‘In a sense — he runs a private security firm we’ve run up against from time to time.’
‘I knew I’d heard the name.’
‘Mars Protection; basically a lot of ex-police and soldiers hired by anyone who wants no niceties involved in removing unwanted persons from their property.’
‘Ex-soldiers… So has he served himself?’
‘No idea, but if your asking if he’s violent, then, to mangle the Good Book, through a man’s business practices shall we know he.’
Grey was quite impressed with this. The Superintendent came out of the secret room to stand beside them,
‘You good for this, Grey?’
‘If I’m not then it’s a bit late to find out.’
‘What’s your angle going to be?’
‘A friendly chat, thank him for coming. After all, we don’t know to know any more yet, do we?’
Not wanting to make the man suspicious, the officers took no longer over preparations than necessary before casually bursting into the interview room the moment after drinks had been delivered. For similar reasons no extra officers were posted in the room, or in the corridor within view from the window in the door. As they entered Grey and Cori each took in the man sat before then: Grey noting his bulk and looking for evil in his eyes; Cori that his dirty nails were incongruous with his general appearance. A devil to get out, she remembered, he had evidently been in the garden before smartening the rest of himself up to come here.
‘Mr Mars, this is Sergeant Smith. Thank you for waiting. I see they’ve got you a drink. We’ll be recording our talk for the file, it’s standard procedure.’
‘I hope this won’t take any longer than necessary? I am a very busy man.’
‘Indeed. You run a security company, I believe?’
The man again seemed mildly surprised at what they already knew about him, Grey not wanting to let on just how they were winging this,
‘Rest assured that we’ll try and get through this as quickly as possible, brevity being the soul of wit and all that. So, perhaps you could begin by giving your reasons for coming to see us today.’
‘Thank you. Yes, well how simply can I put it for you? I saw the news announced of the murder of my mother in this morning’s paper.’
‘It must have been a terrible shock for you,’ asked Cori.
‘Is that a statement or a question? Of course it was a shock, a terrible shock.’
‘When had you last been in touch?’
‘When she left my father.’
‘When I was seven years old.’
‘Tell us about that,’ charged Grey.
‘Well, what’s there to tell? My parents split up and I lived with my father.’
‘You didn’t see her at all though?’
‘She chose to have nothing more to do with us. I was bought up by a father that loved me, rather than two parents who argued terribly toward the end.’
‘You didn’t miss a mother’s love?’
‘I was bought up by a better parent than any child has any right to expect.’
‘Is your father still alive?’
‘No, he died when I was seventeen.’
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’
‘No, an only child.’
‘We’re you alone at home after he died?’
‘No, I’d joined the Navy Cadets by that time.’
‘Did you later serve?’
‘Nine years, Logistics Branch.’
‘So, coming back to the present day, did you know that your mother lived in town?’
‘No, not before this morning.’
‘And how did you feel on finding out?’
‘It was almost as much of a shock as learning that she had died.’
‘You really had no idea she was here?’
‘So, back at the time of the divorce it was clearly known to you that she had moved away?’
‘Yes, she wasn’t in town then, she never visited. As I say, she wanted no more to do with us.’
‘How did you get on with your mother when you were younger?’
‘You’ll appreciate I have very few memories of her, and those I do have are hazy.’
‘Pleasant memories?’ asked Grey, for he thought he had just detected the slightest smile at the corners of the man’s mouth; but this impression was short-lived,
‘Even those memories that were pleasant are rendered at best bitter-sweet by what happened next.’
‘Well, her abandonment! How many times, Inspector..?’
‘I’m sorry, but I need to know the details of the divorce: what happened and to whom.’
‘It is all contained in the papers, which I have seen.’
‘You looked them up?’
‘My father kept his own copies, and showed them to me when I was old enough to understand them.’
‘And how old was that?’
‘Fifteen, sixteen — quite old enough to need to know what had happened.’
‘Even so, a document like that’s a lot for even a teenager to take in, with a lot of long-winded legal language and terminology.’
‘I only had to understand one part of it, Inspector, the part where it gave the reasons for the action.’
‘Abandonment: abandonment of my father by my mother; and by extension, abandonment of me.’
‘Mr Mars, I appreciate how difficult this must be for you to have to answer our questions. It is only the importance of the matter than compels us to continue asking them.’
The Inspector leant back slowly in his chair, the Sergeant taking over. She looked to the printout that Sarah had passed her as they went in, of what she had that minute been able to find
out from the DVLA,
‘You live in town, Mr Mars?’
‘Mansard Lane, it says here. Just off the Stafford Road, isn’t it?’
‘Not half an hour’s walk from your mother’s last home,’ remarked Cori.
He looked dumbfounded, ‘I honestly didn’t know that. She must have moved back there only a few years ago, I’m guessing.’
‘She’d been at the Cedars twenty-four years.’
‘Well then, I’ll be damned.’
Grey leaned back in over the table, ‘There are some final and not very nice questions we do need to ask.’
‘If you could confirm where you were late Monday evening/early Tuesday morning, and again in the early hours of this morning.’
‘Very easily: I was at home both evenings, asleep by that time probably.’
‘Can anyone confirm this,’ asked Cori, ‘just for the record?’
‘My wife, Lidia. Though she’s in London for the day — she’ll be back this evening.’
‘Oh, and how long have you been married?’
‘Coming up to four years.’
‘And do you have any children?’
‘Lidia and I have no children.’
‘And she’s back this evening, you say?’
Cori took a punt, ‘And you didn’t fancy joining her?’
‘It’s a nice day out, in London: parks, sightseeing, shopping.’
‘Alas, work keeps me here. I’ve a pile of contracts to go through this afternoon.’
‘Well, if you could leave your address and both of your contact details at the desk as you leave, and we’ll be in touch with her.’
‘One last question, if I may be permitted,’ requested Grey. ‘What was the very last time you saw your mother?’
‘One evening at home, she’d put me to bed and they were downstairs arguing — I can hear her voice now: so angry, so shrill.’
‘What were they arguing about?’
‘If I knew the words then I don’t remember them now.’
‘Sorry, go on.’
‘The next morning she wasn’t there to walk to school with me — she worked next door, you see — so I went alone. That evening she wasn’t there to pick me up.’
‘Did you cry, at the gates that afternoon?’
‘Yes. How did you..?’
‘Just a guess.’ Grey didn’t let on that it had been Campbell Leigh who told of rumours of tears at the school gates. ‘Well, thank you for coming in, we do appreciate it. There may be other questions we need to ask you, so please stay by the phone.’
‘Thank you, Inspector, Sergeant.’
‘Oh, and sorry Mr Mars,’ remembered Grey as all rose. ‘Just one final, final question: as a child did you ever know a Council colleague of your mothers called Charlie Prove?’
Chapter 13 — Policy Making
‘ No, I didn’t know him. ’
Their interviewee shown back to reception after offering that final answer, the officers and support staff were now huddled around a video screen in the hidden room behind the mirrored glass watching a playback of the interview.
‘That’s a smile there, I told you there was a smile.’
‘It might be a smile,’ one of the others said; but Grey was adamant,
‘I promise you that was a smile, the second before he said he didn’t know Charlie Prove. And listen to how he answered it — “No, I didn’t know him.” — not, “Who’s Charlie Prove?” or even, “Why ask me about some guy I haven’t seen since I was a boy?” That answer’s all wrong.’
‘Well, you don’t need to convince me that there’s grounds for suspicion at least.’ — In the conversation were Sergeant Smith, Sarah Cobb, Inspectors Glass, Rase, and all of theirs boss, the Superintendent, who was now speaking — ‘If we’d have conjured up a suspect from our suppositions of what this killer must be like, then we couldn’t have come up with a better fit.’
‘But if it’s him,’ asked Glass, ‘then why come in? Why just hand himself to us?’
Grey suppressed the urge to shake his head, acknowledging that for all Glass’ abilities, this was why he, Grey, ran the investigative wing of the operation,
‘If it is Mars who killed his mother, then to not come forward now would have been suspicious in itself. He could reasonably delay coming forward only till the news of his mother’s death was all over the local paper. At that point any normal person would get in touch.’
‘And he might still be a “normal person”,’ cautioned the Super, though to little acknowledgement. ‘Till we know any more he remains a grieving relative; and this conversation stays between us.’
‘He timed it perfectly too,’ added Sarah. ‘We’d have had his number in minutes.’
‘So, logistics,’ thought Grey aloud. ‘We’re sure of the details we have for him?’
‘The DVLA and electoral roll both give the same address on the Mansard Lane,’ answered Sarah.
‘Rest assured,’ added Glass. ‘We’ll have an unmarked car go down his road in ten minutes and every hour after.’
‘Okay, but keep it light,’ — this was the Super again — ‘we can’t have him know we’re keeping tabs on him.’
Grey resumed, ‘So, the paper?’
Cori answered, Sarah popping out to find copies from the office, ‘From what I remember of yesterday’s Sports amp; Advertiser, there was only a short report of a death at the care home; not till this morning have they picked up that it was suspicious and given her a photo and larger story on the cover — even now they haven’t linked it to the Prove death.’
‘These murders are happening too late each evening for their print deadlines,’ added Glass grimly.
‘So,’ surmised Grey, ‘an innocent Mars could very easily have missed a short report yesterday; but not reasonably missed the larger story this morning.’ By now Sarah had returned, and Grey scanned the cover story again, ‘There’s more than enough here to get the memories going.’
Superintendent Rose then asked, ‘Now, he says he didn’t know Stella lived at the Cedars till reading it this morning — can we confirm that?’
‘We can’t prove a negative, sir,’ answered Grey, ‘only to say that we know she didn’t have any visitors at the Cedars bar her students, and that even her best friends there…’
‘…and at Tudor Oak School…’ added Cori.
‘…knew no more than that she might once have had family.’
‘So at the very least he didn’t visit her at either place. Could they have written, but not met?’
‘We found nothing amongst her papers,’ answered Grey; Cori confirming,
‘And if she did get back in contact with her son and kept it a secret, then we’re assuming someone as canny as Rachel Sowton didn’t spot this. Which throws up another question: did Stella know her son was still living so close to her?’
Grey pondered, ‘But she’d have had the advantage of knowing he did once live in town — in the family home — and might do still. I wonder, is his current house the one he was bought up in?’
To which no one yet had an answer.
The Superintendent broke the silence,
‘Come on people, think. So what can we say for certain now? He runs a security company, doesn’t he? So could he have tracked her down himself?’
Glass answered, ‘His boys are more strong-arm than intelligence gatherers. I’d call them the industrial equivalent of pub bouncers, if that wasn’t an insult to the bouncers.’
Grey took up Glass’ lead, ‘Sir, a man like Mars or one of his staff lurking around the Cedars for weeks, even a few days, preceding the attack would have been seen by someone. And he’s hardly inconspicuous, is he — he’s heavily built and has a certain intensity about him.’
‘You’re just saying that because you think he’s the killer.’
‘No, he caught my eye crossing the green before I even knew who he was — are you telling me that if he’d been past the Cedars more than once or twice in the days before this chaos erupted that he wouldn’t have been clocked by Derek Waldron or one of the others?’
‘After all,’ recalled Cori, ‘he spotted the schoolgirls outside, didn’t he.’
‘Well, who knows why they caught his attention.’
‘Easy…’ the Super chided Glass; before Grey summed up this part of the discussion,
‘No. We must assume, no more than a best guess, that if it was Mars who killed Stella, then whether he had known she was living there all along or not before that day, then he hadn’t stalked the place very thoroughly before he struck.’
‘And that goes for any outside suspect,’ added Cori, ‘as no strangers had been sighted lately.’
‘There’s woodland opposite,’ their boss remembered. ‘Couldn’t you hide in there, and what would you see?’
Cori wondered, ‘Well, you’d see the front of the building, everyone’s rooms who haven’t had their curtains closed, and comings and going along their side service road.’
‘Get a Constable down there, will you Glass. Look for recent cigarette butts, coffee cartons, burger wrappers.’
She continued, ‘But you’d have to have stayed pretty well hidden: you’ve got people at home all day looking right back out at you.’
‘Anyway,’ asked Rose, ‘when was Mars finding the time for all this lurking in the cedars? Wasn’t he being missed at home?’
As the others had continued discussing this, so Inspector Rase had gone distant, the Super noting this and asking,
‘Grey? Questions? What’s on your mind?’
‘The time of evening?’
‘No, time in years. If it was her son who did this, then I’m damned if I can figure out what his beef was with how his mother was living now. The only thing that needled him was his parents’ divorce.’
‘For which he seemed to find his mother wholly responsible,’ said Rose
‘With no little encouragement from his father,’ lamented Cori.
‘History is written by the victor,’ Grey reminded them.
‘Bloody hell,’ cursed their superior.
Grey rested his chin in interlacing fingers in a look of concentration,
‘So, the knot we seem to be in is this: that if it does turn out to be Mars who killed his mother, then why, when his obvious motive was an event in his childhood that he could have gotten her back for any time since, did he leave it till now?’
‘Perhaps he did only just recently learn she was living there?’ suggested Cori.
‘But that meant he found out two days before he claimed to read it in the paper.’
‘And as for the second murder..?’ she asked rhetorically.
‘…then we have to ask what harm had Charlie Prove ever done him.’ Grey was almost despairing as he said this.
Rose tried to regain some focus, ‘So what else was out of the ordinary Monday night?’
The Inspector attempted to gather himself, ‘Only one thing, and that’s that the schoolgirl was there late that evening, when she shouldn’t have been there after about six.’
‘And maybe another thing, sir,’ added Cori. ‘That Stella was dressed for bed but kept up later than she’d normally be.’
‘Yes,’ he remembered, ‘Rachel Sowton’s observation that Stella would have normally been in bed by the time she was attacked. There seems no doubt that there was something happening with her that evening; but not a one of them who lived with her for all those years knows what it was…’
‘Grey, before we’re completely diverted by Patrick Mars, what other loose ends are hanging?’
He answered wearily, ‘The schoolgirls to be spoken to; and there’s the victims’ time as Councillors to look into; nothing much else that seems very essential, sir.’
‘Tell me anyway.’
‘Well,’ Grey struggled to think. ‘The Cedars’ Duty Manager, Rachel Sowton, was caught up in a raid on a nightclub last summer, a place called Sophia’s.’
‘A drugs den,’ shot back Inspector Glass, ‘forget whatever else is rumoured to go on in there; though if you want to read the complaint file about that raid, it’s still open and a hundred pages thick.’
‘Any connection, Grey?’ asked the Super.
‘Seriously? I don’t think so.’
‘Anything else? Have we checked Charlie’s rooms?’
‘I did right after he vanished, sir,’ answered Cori. ‘There wasn’t much personal to him there, as if he didn’t have much input in how it was set out; and messy too — I got the feeling that anything the orderlies didn’t put away didn’t get put away.’
‘Any photos, even of Eunice?’
‘Maybe they didn’t think it was a good idea for him to be reminded?’
A woman officer approached them,
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she offered the group before turning to face Grey,
‘Inspector, you had a call, the man said it was urgent.’
‘Who was it?’
‘A Campbell Leigh.’
‘Lord, they’re all coming out of the woodwork today,’ muttered Glass.
‘He said to tell you that, “She’s at the Berlin Wall Memorial”. He thought you’d want to know.’
‘So what did that old trouble-maker want?’ Glass asked of Grey after their messenger had left them.
‘Another lead, Grey?’ asked the Super.
‘Sir, Cori and I need to be on this: it’s one of the girls Stella was tutoring.’
‘The one on the staircase the night she was killed?’
‘No, we think the other one; but they are best friends, one leads to the other.’
‘Okay, but I need you back here A.S.A.P. Everyone else on Mars.’ The Superintendent was decisive: ‘Sarah, I want that man’s life story on my desk before we meet this evening.’
‘Glass, I want his whereabouts known and kept tabs on; also, whatever we have on this cowboy security outfit he’s running.’
‘I’m on it.’
Regroup at my office at five. Good afternoon.’
Chapter 14 — Stacie Kehoe
‘So who’s this Campbell Leigh?’ asked the Sergeant.
‘Ah,’ answered the Inspector, ‘you didn’t know that I had a contact now on the Hills Estates Community Forum? It was a long shot, asking his help, but he knows a lot of people and he knows Stacie Kehoe: she’s the toast of the town apparently, won a school prize; and not only that but he saw her not half an hour ago.’
‘I’ll fetch the car.’
‘Where are we going?’ asked Cori once they were moving.
‘Near the Prove site,’ answer Grey, ‘though go there via the Cedars; which will be educational in it’s own right, as you’ll appreciate we’ll be following Charlie’s death-walk by daylight.’
They took the car first to Cedars Avenue, before beginning the journey proper. The five-minute’s drive took them first along the sedate Avenue, then onto the instant flurry of one of the town’s major arteries, before eventually seeing them turning off into the maze of Groves, Walks and Passages that made up the geographical patchwork that was the Hills estates.
The site of Stacie’s sighting wasn’t far from where a police cordon still fluttered around the courtyard where Charlie Prove had met his end; yet the drive there was less useful than Grey had hoped, as Cori, busy with the indicator and craning forward at each junction, eventually had to concede,
‘I can’t get any nearer that way, and the other direction’s pedestrianised.’ A line was flashing on the satnav, but that turned out to be a gated alleyway. ‘Who designed this place?’
Between the odd shapes of flats and houses Grey could see another road between them and where they their destination lay, one with garages and small bunker-like shops running along it; yet like his partner couldn’t see how to get to it from the road they were on.
Were such streetplans designed to militate against car use? Grey didn’t know, but imagined that on foot there would be a dozen ways to walk between here and the Cedars, and that he could try and trace Charlie’s route as many times and never follow his exact footsteps.
‘Looks like we’ll have to take the last bit by foot,’ he suggested.
‘And what a lovely place you’ve left me to park the car.’
The ‘Monument to the Falling of the Berlin Wall’ was twenty years old now and still doing its job. Situated a few yards in from the near side of the largest area of greenery in this section of the Hills, it had been designed to offer a focal point and enliven the landscape without taking away valuable free space. Circular, three foot tall, and around three yards across, it was a raised disc of grass the shape of a sponge cake, with the mini-representation of the famous Wall acting as the cake tin or decorative ribbon running around the side and holding the elevated section in place. The ‘Wall’, complete with etched-in authentic graffiti (overlaid with more modern additions) had around the circumference panels broken, missing or appearing to tilt to one side, in representation of how the Berlin Wall looked that famous night, when those held behind it for so long took to it with pick-axes and lump-hammers.
Essentially it formed a tiny ha-ha wall, though with no stately home atop it to keep the cows away from. Grey, when passing this way and where appropriate, could never resist jumping to the top for the optical illusion it offered of grass running off unbroken in all directions. Not today though, as the monument was not vacant, it instead already occupied by a figure sat cross-legged at the centre and distractedly watching a distant football game. That they were here wearing a school blazer on a schoolday afternoon seemed in the circumstances neither here nor there.
Mindful of procedure, along their way here Grey had again called the Kehoes. Stacie’s father now approached from the opposite direction to meet them.
‘Dad!’ she started as she saw him approach. ‘I couldn’t face going in today.’
‘It’s not about school. Stacie, love, these people just want to talk to you about Ms Dunbar, your tutor.’
‘Are you the police?’ Relieved in one way now, she hopped off the monument to join them in that way only teenagers possess, of having energy to burn but still appearing sullen about it. But Grey could tell that this was not her normal mode and that she was just upset.
‘Hello Stacie,’ I’m Inspector Rase and this is Sergeant Smith. You know why we want to speak to you?’
‘Am I in trouble?’
‘Not that I know of; but you did know Ms Dunbar didn’t you, and have you heard what happened to her?’
‘She was murdered.’
‘Yes, she was, and so you see we must speak to everyone who knew her at all.’
‘Can we talk here? I like it here.’
‘Of course we can. So, when did you last see her?’
‘Thursday after school.’
‘This was your regular appointment?’ (She nodded) ‘And you hadn’t seen her since?’
‘How long have you been seeing her?’
‘Since the start of last term.’
‘It isn’t that she isn’t clever, Inspector.’ This was her father speaking.
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t want to suggest it was.’
‘Her teachers recommended her to get a tutor because she was so bright: to push herself, to do even better, to learn even more and get into college, maybe even university.’
‘So Ms Dunbar was specifically recommended?’
At this the father looked shamefaced,
‘The thing was, Inspector, when it was first suggested we get a tutor for Stacie, we weren’t able to afford one.’
‘Esther’s family…’ burst in Stacie to break the silence, her own father clarifying,
‘We don’t — didn’t pay for Ms Dunbar’s tutoring.’
‘My friend Esther was seeing Stella already. She needed to: she’d missed a lot of school and so her family were sending her there to catch up. She didn’t enjoy the lessons, and so she asked me to go with her and wait for her afterwards. Esther took me along one week and we all got on. Stella gave me a book to read, and she was thrilled the next week when I came back and told her I’d finished it.’
‘ Of Mice and Men.’
‘And what did you think of it?’
‘That it was so sad.’
‘A beautiful book.’
‘It is, isn’t it.’
‘I told you she was clever, Inspector,’ commended a proud father.
‘We had a long chat about my favourite books. We almost took over all of Esther’s lesson, not that she minded.’
‘Esther’s an emotional girl, Inspector, not bookish like our Stacie. She’s got her head screwed on right.’
‘Stella said I ought to speak to my parents about coming to see her myself. I said that we’d been advised to before but couldn’t… But the next day Esther came around with her family, and they said they’d be happy to pay for me as well.’
‘He’s a good man, Esther’s dad. An honest man.’
‘I… don’t think he is her dad, Dad.’
‘No, I remember now, she called him Jeff.’
‘Missed a lot of school, you say?’ asked Cori.
‘I think she may have been moved around a bit, had a tough childhood. She told me bits of it, but didn’t like to talk about it too much.’
Grey could see there would never be such problems at the Kehoes. He continued,
‘Monday would have been Esther’s evening with Stella?’
‘Yes, Mondays and Wednesdays.’
‘Did she attend that lesson?’
The girl now only nodded, looking downward.
‘And did you know she was still at the Cedars at ten that evening?’
Those sullen eyes shocked opened wide.
‘You didn’t know she was there that night?’
Stacie gave the kind of unguarded look that adults become too good at covering.
Grey guessed, ‘But you knew something was up? She’s told you? You’ve spoken to her since?’
‘She hasn’t been in school this week?’
‘Not since Monday, no.’
‘Come on Stacie, love. Tell him what you know.’
‘After this, can we go and get something to eat?’
With her father’s encouragement, she spoke slowly,
‘On some days we have different lessons, so I don’t get to see her much. At lunchtime on Tuesday though, her form tutor found me in the corridor and asked me why she hadn’t come in that day. I checked my phone — we’re meant to switch them off in class, but I keep mine on silent — but I hadn’t felt it buzz all morning and she hadn’t messaged me. I called and got no answer, but she texted later.’ Stacie fumbled with her phone, holding the screen open for the officers to see the message from Esther:
‘NOT GOING TO SCHOOL TODAY. FOUND SOMETHING OUT, NEED TO CHECK. DON’T GO TO CLASS TONIGHT!!!
‘And then I got this one, after I tried to call again and got no reply to my messages,
‘DON’T WORRY BUNNY. CAN’T TALK YET. WILL TELL YOU ALL SOON. COULD BE AMAZING!!! BUT SHHHH! BIG SECRET!! XXXXXX’
‘Did you know what she meant?’
‘She gave you no more indication of what it was she’d found out? Whether it was something to do with Stella?’
‘I… don’t know.’
‘That’s just one of her silly nicknames for people.’ Stacie couldn’t help but smile as she remembered her friend’s ways.
‘So what did you do?’
‘I still went to my lesson after school, and saw the people outside Stella’s building and ran home.’
‘You knew it was Stella that had died?’
She nodded, ‘They were talking about her. And then I was really scared.’
Her father took her in his arms, ‘Oh, honey, why didn’t you tell us you were worried about your friend?’
‘I didn’t know what to say, Dad. And you were already being so nice about Stella.’
‘We’d seen the news in the afternoon paper you see, Inspector.’
‘That’s not all,’ continued Stacie. ‘We’ve got a number for Esther’s family — or step-family, whatever they are — so that evening I called them.’
‘I didn’t know what to say at first, I didn’t want to get Esther into trouble you see, so I started just by telling them about Stella, that she’d died, and that I knew they’d want to know.’
‘And they told me that they already knew, that they’d read it in the evening paper, and that Esther already knew. They told me not to worry, even though they sounded worried, though they were trying to hide it. So I just told them everything: about Esther not being at school, and her teacher asking where she was, and about Esther’s messages. I even broke her promise, and told them she had this secret.’
‘And what did they say?’
‘They said they’d called the school and spoken to her teacher, and that that was all sorted out now and for me not to worry about it.’
‘No response regarding the “secret”?’
‘No. So I pushed them, asked to speak to Esther. They told me she wasn’t there, that she’d gone away for a few days, and that she’d be back when she was ready.’
‘Those were their exact words?’
‘Yes, as I remember them.’
‘Who did you speak to?’
‘Her father, Jeff, or whoever he is; but I could hear his wife was there too.’
‘Do you have that number?’
Stacie again moved quick fingers over the touchscreen to bring up her ‘Calls Dialled’.
Cori checked her notebook, ‘Yes, that’s the number we’ve been calling, and only getting their answerphone.’
Mr Kehoe said, ‘They do normally answer. That’s the number we called to tell them Stacie was ill one week and so Esther couldn’t stop over as arranged.’
Grey paused; then continued,
‘Stacie. You may not have known this, but Esther was at the Cedars only a short while before Stella was attacked. If nothing else we need to keep her out of danger.’
‘You’ve been a tremendous help, but we need you to do one more thing for us.’
‘You want me to tell you when I hear from Esther?’
‘It will be for the best, sweetie.’
‘I know, Dad.’
Cori had dialled the number again,
‘I’m still getting the answerphone; and we’ve already left two messages. I’ll call the school and see if they have her last address.’
‘I can take you there,’ said Stacie suddenly. ‘I don’t know the address, but I remember the house.’
‘We call in?’ asked Cori of Grey alone, knowing the Superintendent was waiting on their return.
‘We could have Esther in the hour.’
‘Come on then,’ she said to all, ‘the car’s this way.’
Chapter 15 — The Wheelwrights
In Cornelia Smith’s experience, it was often the husband who had the larger car, the wife the smaller. But not in her family, she needing the fast and also capacious modern estate in her civic role; while Brough Smith, ever the technological connoisseur, considered that it offered a certain cachet in his standing amongst those under his charge to see their boss arrive for work in the tiniest of European two-seaters. Were it not for the practicality that underlined even his most expressive impulses, he would have even gone for the convertible.
‘Why didn’t you park by the shops?’ Cori and the Inspector were asked by Stacie, as the group walked she short distance across the Hills estates to where Cori had parked. With the question left unanswered and the Kehoes piled into the back seat, they sped into the older part of town.
‘So, Stacie,’ asked Grey as they drove, ‘what were you studying for with Stella? What’s your dream?’
‘I want to stay in the Sixth Form and study English.’
‘And she’ll get there too,’ beamed her father, ‘with the results she’s getting.’
‘Then we wish you all the best.’
The house in question was indeed distinct from its neighbours: a kind of ranch-style dwelling, possibly Spanish in inspiration, detached though smaller in scale than might be found on the set of a spaghetti western and hemmed in by the trees at either side of the garden. What was important though was that with its distinctive roof tiles and pale terracotta colouring it was memorable to Stacie, and she was certain when she picked it out.
The Inspector got out alone and rang the bell. As soon as Cori saw a figure move behind the frosted glass and open the porch door, he waved back at her, this being her cue to drop the Kehoes at the station to have someone take Stacie’s statement, before coming back to collect her colleague.
‘Mr Night?’ asked Grey as the porch door opened.
‘Wheelwright.’ answered the man who had a cordless phone in his hand and seemed all of a dither.
‘Inspector Rase, Southney Police. You haven’t been answering your phone.’
‘Sorry, it’s been a hectic couple of days. I’ve only just got back myself.’
He stared at the Inspector like he didn’t know that asking questions was his job.
‘Work, if you must know, before they forget what I look like.’
‘Does Esther Night live here?’
‘My wife and I are Esther’s foster parents.’
‘Is Esther here, Mr Wheelwright?’
‘No, she’s with her mother in Leicester. It’s Esther you want to talk about?’
‘We do, and really rather urgently.’
The man paused before resigning himself to the inevitable, ‘Then perhaps my wife is the best person to speak to. She’s been visiting the family this morning. She’ll be back any minute. Will you come in? Can I get you a drink?’
Even letting Wheelwright lead him through the several interlinking rooms that led to the lounge meant they didn’t get properly started for another minute, Grey asking as they walked,
‘Then until your wife arrives perhaps you could fill me in on a bit of the background?’
But it was his host who made sure he said his piece first upon reaching the room,
‘Well, if you could hold on for fifteen minutes. The call I was making when you arrived,’ he said gesturing with the phone still in his hand, ‘was to Esther’s social worker. She’s on her way over here too, and I would prefer any discussion about Esther to be in their presence.’
Grey held his temper, ‘Mr Wheelwright, this isn’t a case of truant or whatever other trouble you think Esther might have gotten herself into.’
‘No,’ the man’s face turned to Grey’s, serious but without anger. ‘It’s about Stella Dunbar, isn’t it. We’d read that she’d died.’
‘And did you know that Esther could have been one of the last people to see her alive?’
‘She had her lesson that evening, yes.’
‘We believe that Esther was back there at nearly ten o’clock.’ Grey could see he hadn’t known this.
‘And when was Stella killed?’
‘Not very long after. Mr Wheelwright, why did Esther leave town?’
‘Perhaps my wife can tell us that when she arrives.’
‘You didn’t know she was going?’
‘No, we didn’t know Esther had gone till she didn’t come home on Monday night.’
‘You didn’t raise the alarm?’
‘Her mother called us before midnight, otherwise we would have.’
‘How did she get to Leicester?’
‘By pure luck it seems: she jumped the last bus.’
‘And how did she..?’
‘She has twenty pounds on her for emergencies. If she asks us to replenish it we don’t ask why. It’s a trust thing, Inspector: building up her confidence in other people by showing we have confidence in her; the same reason why we don’t question her too harshly if she’s ever out later than expected.’
‘A teenager could take advantage of such a set up.’
‘Esther doesn’t, she’s a good girl. I only hope all this won’t…’
There was a sound of cars pulling up as if in convoy, and then a clatter of bodies and luggage coming through doors. From the hallway Grey heard:
‘Ah, hello Janice.’
‘And, who are you?’
‘Sergeant Smith. My Inspector is already talking to your husband.’
‘And why wasn’t I called about this? You know we recommend being present for any discussion with the police.’
The men were then descended on by a flock of women.
‘Jeff, what are you doing talking with the police without Janice here?’
‘Love, we’ve barely gotten past introductions. Now everyone sit down, and I’ll make a pot of tea.’
Jeff Wheelwright returned with the tea things to join a group sat in plush leather armchairs and two-seat sofas around a low glass coffee table. The group comprised the Wheelwrights Jeff and Louise, their social worker Janice (whose surname they would later learn was Roper) and the two detectives.
‘Shall I be mother?’ As the one standing to serve Jeff naturally took charge of conversation,
‘Now the police are here as they think Esther may have been at the Cedars later than we thought on the night her tutor died.’
‘We read of the death in the paper yesterday, Inspector,’ said Janice. ‘Today’s issue says you believe it’s murder now?’
‘We know it was; and there was a second resident murdered last night, though some way away from the building.’
‘It gets worse.’ Jeff was sitting down with his own cup, finally. ‘From what you were saying as you came in, you think Esther may have been there near the time the died?’
This bought glances from the other women as if to say, so you two had been talking about the case before we got here… However Louise Wheelwright, calmer now she was sat down after her journey, though none the less stressed for that, eventually conceded,
‘They might be right.’
‘Oh?’ uttered Janice.
‘Well we can’t be sure of that,’ started Cori in response to Jeff, but let his wife speak,
‘I take it there are no confidences left around this table?’
It wasn’t the police Louise Wheelwright looked to for confirmation of this but rather Janice, the social worker, who shook her head.
‘Then I can tell you that I’ve just come back from seeing Esther and Maisie — that’s Esther’s mother,’ she added for the detective’s benefit. ‘I can confirm to you first of all that Esther is fine and perfectly safe.’
There was a general sigh of relief around the coffee table.
‘However, I’m not sure the Inspector’s theories are too far fetched. I spoke with Maisie in private, and she confirms the girl arrived, entirely unexpectedly, late on Monday evening — it’s a good job there was somebody in. She was in floods of tears until the early hours, when they could finally put her to bed. She must have been exhausted, as she slept till nearly noon; after which they were able to speak more calmly.’
‘And what did they say?’ asked Janice for the group.
‘Well, Maisie said that after they’d gotten over Esther’s apologies to her, and to us, and to her teachers for missing her lessons, and that all that was out of her system, then Esther turned to Maisie and asked her quietly, “Do you know Stella Dunbar?”’
‘And how did Maisie answer?’
‘Well, Maisie told me that she didn’t, except to ask Esther the same question back? Obviously she’d never heard of this woman, except in passing if Esther ever mentioned something that she learnt in one of her after-school lessons.
‘Anyway, we were on the phone to Maisie off and on all that day, and so she asked me in turn, “Who is Stella Dunbar?” And I told her she was Esther’s tutor, no more and no less; and that no, I’d no idea why Esther would be asking about her. By the next time I spoke to Maisie though we’d read that Stella was dead — and from that moment we’ve feared the worst.’
‘This was the conversation Esther overheard,’ added Jeff.
‘Sorry?’ asked Grey, lost now.
His wife continued, ‘Well, I learnt this morning speaking to Maisie, that when we had the conversation where I told her that Stella was dead, that Esther must have come down and had overheard us talking. Maisie hadn’t seen Esther in the hall, but when she next went up to check on her she found she was in hysterics again, and remained so for the next hour.’
‘Well, that’s good news, if nothing else is.’ Cori had, somewhat uncharacteristically, engaged her mouth before putting her brain in gear.
‘I’m sorry, Sergeant. I don’t follow?’ said Janice self-righteously, as though entertaining the mere notion of ‘good news’ in the presence of a child’s misery was evidence of the grossest insensitivity.
Grey clarified, ‘It means that Esther left town not knowing that Stella was dead. It means she wasn’t involved in the murder, nor a witness to it, hadn’t even seen the body. That, to us, is “good news”.’
‘Yes, I see what you mean. Yes, yes, quite right.’ Janice paused before continuing. When she did so she spoke with quiet authority, ‘Of course, Esther’s upset could have been delayed shock, or the unwelcome intrusion of a fact she was denying knowledge of?’
But Louise Wheelwright was adamant, ‘No, Maisie spoke to Esther about it afterward: the girl had been taken totally unawares by what she’d overheard.’
‘Well, I think the Sergeant’s right. Clearing that up is indeed a huge relief.’ This was Jeff Wheelwright, who as the fact of Esther’s non-involvement sank in himself sank further into his armchair. ‘The way you’d spoken earlier, Inspector, I thought you were suggesting that Esther might have been a witness to the murder.’
Grey answered, ‘We feared she might; are glad she’s not.’
But Janice counselled caution, ‘I still don’t think we can rule out the possibility that Esther saw or heard something: children, even teenagers — even adults — can deny all sorts of things to themselves; sometimes for just long enough to deal with the trauma they cause, sometimes for a lifetime. There are people out there walking the streets who’ve seen all sorts of things and will never tell.’
Despite Janice’s best efforts, Grey was reassured by what he’d heard here this afternoon. There was still though so much ground still to cover,
‘We’re still missing a lot of the background here: who is Esther and who is her mother?’
Janice answered, ‘Esther is the product of a broken home. Her father didn’t want her, and her mother couldn’t look after her. Sorry to be so blunt, but there we are.’
‘Hence why she lives here?’
‘The Wheelwrights have helped with many children. They’re unsung heroes of this town.’
At last something approaching a positive emotion from the social worker, thought Grey, though he could understand now a little of her earlier angst.
‘But she’s also allowed to stay with Maisie?’
‘For short spells, and with Jeff and Louise here for Esther to come back to. In Maisie’s case what helped was taking away any parental responsibility, allowing her and Esther to meet as friends. Otherwise she is a perfectly capable woman, and I’m sure a capable mother again some day.’
‘But why move Esther here? Wouldn’t moving towns unsettle her even more?’
‘No, Esther is a Southneyite, it’s her mother who moved towns when she married, going back to stay with her own mother back in Leicester after the marriage broke down.’
‘So Esther has other family in Southney?’
‘None that she’s in contact with.’
‘And who is her father?’
Janice looked downcast, ‘I’ve never met him. Maisie will have nothing to do with him, won’t even have his name mentioned. They don’t use his name or accept any support from him — not that any has ever been offered. Strictly speaking she should have registered with the Child Support Agency, but the mere suggestion brings her out in boils. And on that note, I think any further questions of Maisie’s marriage should be answered by her; though please be mindful of the trauma that woman suffered: her husband abandoned her; and by extension Esther. The girl grew up in a battlefield, Inspector.’
‘But do you remember her father’s name?’
‘Not off the top of my head, sorry. My caseload alas is not a light one. There are just too many names.’
‘But you’ll have it on file?’
‘I’ll find it for you as soon as I’m back in the office.’
She nodded. ‘Now I should make plans to go and see them right away.’ Janice moved as if she were getting up to leave that minute.
‘I don’t think that’s the best idea,’ counselled Louise Wheelwright. ‘She’s with her mother and we’ve spoken before of their need for quality time together.’
‘That is true,’ conceded Janice, ‘especially as they get on so much better now. Of course children often do, when they begin to see visiting their parents as a rare treat and not an everyday, and oftentimes aggravational, experience.’
Cori and Grey shared a look, he saying,
‘Well, whoever else is going to Leicester tomorrow, we certainly need to speak to her.’
‘Well, I don’t know about…’
‘All procedures will be followed, it goes without saying.’ Even if that involves your presence, thought Grey of the woman who seemed to view him on no evidence as nothing less than the Childcatcher.
‘Anyway, you’ve no need to worry.’ This was Louise Wheelwright again, who had earlier seemed to drop out of the conversation, perhaps weary after her journey and a couple of nights without much sleep. ‘Maisie’s brother’s bringing them both back this evening.’
Grey moved forward in the chair, ‘Do you think Esther’s mother would be happy to let her speak to the police?’
‘That’s why they’re coming back — Esther wants to speak to you.’
‘Wait, this has to be done properly.’ Janice was insistent now. ‘We’ll need one of the family rooms at our office, a specially trained police officer.’
‘We’ve all done the course,’ confirmed Cori.
‘And I’ll need to speak to Esther beforehand to ensure she’s fit to be subjected to interrogation. This won’t be before tomorrow morning, Inspector.’
He nodded his assent.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a very busy day.’
As their hostess also rose to excuse herself, so their host showed the three guests to the door; Grey asking,
‘So, is it usual for Esther to decide things for herself, like when she visits her mother?’
‘She’s an unusually determined girl when she wants to be,’ answered Janice with what Grey sensed might be a hint of past exasperation.
‘We encourage her to follow through on her convictions,’ reiterated her foster-father.
Janice continued on her earlier theme, ‘Technically speaking, it’s our decision whether we allow a child to speak to the police or not; but in my experience, however we try to protect them, it does little good for our children not to face up to whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into.’
‘I’m not sure she’s in an trouble.’
‘Oh no, I’m speaking more generally; though this case does feel rather different.’
At the door Jeff Wheelwright made arrangements for Janice to call them in the morning, then wished his guests good afternoon. Grey checked his watch: it was just after three.
Alone with the detectives, Janice apologised, adding,
‘You know, I really don’t recall the father’s name without the file in front of me.’
‘And how much of the file will we be allowed to see?’
‘How much will you need? Well, it will be easiest to do so when you come over for the interview tomorrow. You know, he treated Maisie very badly. Psychologically more then physically. She hardly went out for years. It isn’t going to be easy for her coming back to town, even with her brother.’
Janice allowed herself a small smile before they left for their respective cars, she off and away in her pastel-shaded hatchback before Cori and Grey even had their seatbelts on.
Chapter 16 — The Man from the Ministry
The Sergeant and Inspector sat silently in the car on the Wheelwright’s driveway. Not the brightest afternoon, Grey looked out at the darkening sky through the windscreen,
‘Another broken family then, another wife leaving her husband.’
‘And neither sounding like they had much choice in the matter.’ Cori paused before firing the ignition, adding, ‘You know, boss, these family histories are beginning to mingle in my mind. I’m having trouble keeping them apart.’
Grey felt it too: like ivy winding ‘round a tree trunk matters Night were becoming indistinguishable from matters Mars,
‘So, which one of us is going to say it first?’
Yet she was as reticent, ‘I fear once said it might he hard to un-say it; and if we’re wrong…’
‘Oh God, let’s just have it out in the open: our problem is that we need a bad man to play Maisie’s husband, and Patrick Mars steps too easily into that void.’
‘Then we can’t allow ourselves to think it, can we, sir.’ She was chastising herself as much as him. ‘We’ve no proof and it’s all too neat.’
‘Neat?’ he shot back in vexation. ‘It’s a tangled mess — even if Mars had a first marriage to Maisie, then where would we start?’
‘Then I suppose,’ she said as soothingly as possible, ‘that we draw a whole new family tree, and we start from scratch.’
He calmed down, ‘Well, at least until we have the name of Esther’s father then all this is supposition; though hopefully that’s what Janice has just scooted off so quickly to look up for us. Meanwhile, we have the problem of just what Esther saw.’
Though as the pair changed focus, this new question offered no easier answers, Cori surmising,
‘If we believe that Esther really didn’t see the body or anything of the murder, then something else must have spooked her at the Cedars on Monday…’
‘…and enough for her to travel all the way to her mother’s without telling a soul.’
‘The “secret” she mentioned in the text message to her friend Stacie?’
‘Then that’s interesting in itself, don’t you think, sir?’
‘Well I remember what I was like at that age. There’s things you tell your best mate that you wouldn’t ever tell your parents; let alone, I’d imagine, a parent you’re in the process of rebuilding your relationship with.’
‘So it’s something only her real mother would know?’
‘Maybe just a family member, as it sounds like Esther doesn’t have any others she could talk to. She had her best friend, her foster family, her social worker all here in town, yet she chose to tell the person she knew who lived furthest away.’
But it was Grey who spoke for both of them when he said,
‘Then it’s a shame we’re not going to find out what her “secret” was until tomorrow at the earliest — that’s if Janice sees Esther fit for interview.’ And after what that girl had been through, neither of the detectives would have blamed Janice for thinking not; but Cori couldn’t leave it there, despite her own earlier calls for caution,
‘You know sir, if the families are linked then it’s obvious what her “secret” was…”
Yet Grey merely placed his head back square against the headrest and faced forward, as if restraining himself from answering, as if saying to himself and so to them both that without the proof then this was a road along which he would go no further.
Back at the station things were also moving apace, Sarah greeting them before they were barely through the door:
‘Boss. The Super wants to see us all now you’re back.’
‘Okay, we’ll go up in a minute. What have you got for us?’
‘As you know, the DVLA have all his details,’ she reiterated: ‘Patrick Mars, forty-five, and resident at the address on Mansard Lane since registering with them in the Nineties — he’d gotten his licence in the forces, it looks like. Now, I got back to the teaching union: you remember they weren’t certain that the record of a Stella Mars at the Tudor Oak Independent School was Stella Dunbar under another name? Well, now we know that it is, they looked back further for us and corroborated that before then she did work at the Southney School under that name; as did Samuel Mars. The earliest records are at a different address though, so it looks like the couple moved to Mansard Lane some time in their marriage.’
‘So, Mars is still living at his parents’ house. He must have lived there almost his whole life; apart from the Navy, of course.’
Cori mused, ‘So, Stella could have tracked him down much more easily than he could her.’
‘What year did he register in the DVLA?’ asked Grey of Sarah.
‘And he joined the Navy when he was seventeen, he told us, which would have been…’
‘He was born in Sixty-seven, so… Eighty-four.’
‘So he served for nine years. That’s about a military term, isn’t it? When did Stella inherit that flat?’
Cori went through her notebook, ‘Eighty-eight.’
‘Then how’s this for a hypothesis: Stella inherits her aunt’s flat: cosy, secluded, in the town she still loves and had long-fought for on the Council, which even after her not-very-pleasant sounding marriage breaks down she still can’t bear to go further away than to the outskirts of. Now she’ll have read in the paper years ago, might even have been contacted by the solicitors about, the death of her husband — she knows he’s out of the way. So, she risks a walk past the old house, just to check if anyone connected with her old life and the family Mars’ are there, and finds it shut up, unoccupied…’
‘…or even with another family renting, if he was away so long.’
‘That would have been even more reassuring. So she risks it after fourteen-odd years, moves back to the heart of town, to where she feels she belongs.’
Cori was doubtful, ‘Even after the damage she believed the Hills Estates had done to the place?’
‘Well, the way she’d later help Charlie would suggest she eventually found her way to get over that. Just think of it — if this is how it happened: she settles back into town confident her ghosts are not awaiting her; only for the son she assumed long gone moving back five years later to live mere minutes away, so close but never meeting for, what, nineteen years? Until the day he…’
‘Until the day we think he…’ corrected Cori.
‘Until the day we think he came to kill her.’
‘But boss, is it conceivable that they didn’t know each other were there?’
‘Absolutely. I’ve childhood friends I know still live in the area who I haven’t seen for decades.’
‘But that still doesn’t tell us how he found out, and why this week.’
Yet the question hung unanswered as another came to join them,
‘Glass. All well at the Mars house?’
‘My men have buzzed the place twice: quite a nice place, actually; lived in but empty at present.’
‘But keeping our distance?’
‘For now. Anyway, the Super’s called us all up when you arrived.’
The four trooped up the stairs at to the office, knocking the closed door.
They found Superintendent Rose with another man sat around his side of the desk, smartly dressed and clearly a career bureaucrat.
‘Good, you’re all here,’ began Rose. ‘Now, this is Robert Grange of the UK Border Agency, Midlands and East Region.’ — Cue handshakes and introductions all ‘round. — ‘Now, before we get onto anything else happening today I need to tell you about what Robert and I have been talking about, as he’s come a way to speak to us today, and he needs to get back for his daughters birthday party. So, brevity please.’
Their boss continued, ‘Now, the first search our officers downstairs carried out on Lidia Mars revealed that there was no one of that exact name on the Electoral Register for the address on Mansard Lane that she apparently shares with Patrick Mars, she appearing there instead as Ludmila Mars. So, on a hunch I contacted Immigration, and they were good enough to send Robert here.’
‘Thank you,’ the man took over the monologue. ‘Yes, well thankfully her arrival in the UK was pretty-well all above board, so there’s rather a lot I can tell you. Ludmila Sergeyevna Grechko came into Heathrow from Moscow via a connecting flight from Amsterdam four years ago on a tourist’s visa. Very naughty, especially if she’d already planned to wed here; which given that she and Patrick Mars married at Haringey Registry Office a week later, we suspect she did.’
‘Was this through an agency?’ asked Grey. ‘Russian brides?’
‘Why, do you want their number?’ chuckled Glass; himself married to a woman they saw once a year at the Christmas party, and with whom he had an en ever-increasing and indeterminate number of children. But Glass had misjudged his audience, and so a joke that might have gone down rather better amongst his more familiar milieu of Constables bored in the back of a riot van, here was received with only the most politest of embarrassed smiles from the women and a stern glare from his superior. Robert Grange, perhaps accepting this as common police behaviour, continued unfazed,
‘The suspicion that the match was brokered through a website is noted on the file. This is not illegal if both parties are happy with it; and we have no reason to think that Ludmila wasn’t very glad to get to Britain. It can be risky though for both sides, as you’ve no idea what the other person will really be like. It can also be a great sacrifice for her and very expensive for him. It also opens the man up to fraud, of course — Mars may have had his hands burnt a couple of times already before finding Ludmila through a reliable agency.’
‘Yet you say this one was all above board?’
‘Those engaging in such marriages undergo thorough checks for a number of months afterward, to make sure it is a real marriage and that the couple are living together as husband and wife, not marrying just to earn the recent emigre firstly what’s termed “leave to remain” and, eventually, full British citizenship — In these cases,’ he digressed, ‘then it’s the emigre who pays the existing resident, of course, not the other way around. Then there are also cases where women coming here ostensibly to start a married life disappear as soon as they think they can safely do so after the marriage, thus retaining what they earned of the money the man paid to bring them here, and, so they believe, having the legal right to stay. Though without yet earning “leave to remain” that may not be the case.’
‘But nothing dodgy in this case?’
‘Not at all.’ Grange went through his notes spread out on Rose’s desk beside his leather satchel, ‘Checks were made at Mansard Lane three months after the couple were married; that revealed that Lidia had already adopted an anglicised version of her name, socially if not legally, and seemed a natural in the role of wife and homemaker for Patrick. The fact that they are still together now suggests our agents’ assessment at the time was correct.’
But something in this man’s smooth talking of Ludmila’s new life narked Cori,
‘And Mr Grange, you consider this new life of hers a success, Ludmila leaving behind her family and her home and all she knew to instead assimilate the role of English housewife?’
‘We make no judgement on the choices people make, only that they act within the law.’
‘But such an arrangement militates against feminism.’ Cori shocked herself, not having even thought this way for years.
Robert Grange remained unruffled, ‘Mrs Mars is a free woman who has made choices…’
‘What, you think she has displayed any freedom here? You can say that, you who represent a government with an equal rights agenda?’
‘Watch out, men — Cornelia’s on a charge.’
‘Oh, shut up Glass.’ This was the Superintendent, though Cori might have said it herself a split-second later. Grey simply sat back, not believing what he was hearing, but always loving a veil drawn back on other’s lives.
Rose attempted conciliation, ‘You know how these things work, Cori: the men who find these agencies think British women are too outspoken, too free; while the agencies peddle the myth that these are simple farm girls they’re offering who’d make good traditional wives.
‘Now, maybe I’m not the best one to talk. You may know that Mrs Rose is Spanish, and who after we met in London never made any secret of her desire to stay at home after we married and dedicate herself to the family…’
Glad of the distraction, Grey only wished he hadn’t the case to occupy him and so could get home and get all this down in the diary. The conversation however soon refocused,
‘Anyway, this is precisely the kind of debate I wanted to avoid us getting into. Mr Grange has even more for us; if you’ll be so kind.’
‘Of course. Well, yes, you are lucky that the couple married over three years ago; as this has allowed Lidia… Ludmila the three years as spouse of a British citizen that she needed to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen herself; and hence gain voting rights, and so place herself on the Electoral Register, where you found her real name. However, as the Superintendent hinted, during our discussions we discovered another fact that could be of use to you:
‘The file we have on our system for Ludmila Sergeyevna Grechko links to that of another recent entrant to the country, an Eleonora Aleksandrovna Grechko.’
‘A relative? Sister, mother?’ Grey was having quite enough of family trees by now.
‘Not a sister, as she has a different patronymic: Eleonora’s father was Aleksandr, not Sergey.’
‘So Eleonora is Ludmila’s mother?’
‘More likely. But that’s just it: the case is being dealt with in Whitehall right now, this week in fact.’
‘So that’s where she’s been in London today…’ realised Sarah as she wrote all this down.
‘…while Mars let us form the opinion she was out shopping on Oxford Street,’ concluded Grey with a certain grim admiration.
‘Anyway, Eleonora came to visit the family ten months ago, travelling on a three months tourist visa… After discovering her still here, we’d have offered her invitation to return, which she’s evidently appealing. I expect, when I’ve had a chance to speak to someone at the London office, that it will turn out that the grounds for requesting an extension of leave for Eleonora are compassionate: that she’s missed her beloved daughter these recent years, perhaps that she wants leave to stay permanently.’
‘Will she get it?’
‘I don’t know. Now the case must be a complex one, as it’s been going on since Monday — there was even a note here of it being referred to the Russian Embassy in London.’
‘Which all means?’ asked Grey.
‘Which all means,’ explained Rose, ‘that if Ludmila has been in London attending her mother’s hearings, then there’d be no reason to go there just today.’
‘She’d have been there all week?’
‘And unless Ludmila is commuting to and from London every morning and night…’
‘…then she hasn’t been home to give Mars his alibi these past two nights.’
‘That seems to be the crux of it,’ concluded their visitor. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I do have things to be getting back for.’
‘Of course.’ Rose thanked the man from the ministry. ‘I’ll call for someone to take you back to reception.’
‘It’s all right, I’ll go,’ announced Cori, jumping up to escort him.
‘You didn’t have to show me to the door,’ said Robert Grange in a clever way that left Cori with the firm impression that he was still glad she had done.
‘I wanted to say sorry for how I spoke back there,’ she said once out of others’ earshot. ‘Very unprofessional. I don’t think I’ve spoken that way since university.’
He stopped her by the security doors, ‘If it’s any consolation, I feel just the same. I’m here representing the Agency, I can’t voice my own opinions.’
‘For what it’s worth, what your Superintendent said was true about the myth of the Ukrainian peasant farmgirl. Many are from slums and old industrial towns where unemployment is through the roof. If not by this way, then they may only turn to gangsters to help get them out, and then end up smuggled into nightclubs and brothels in Paris or Amsterdam.’
‘Ludmila’s one of the lucky ones then.’
‘Certainly not the worst off. So, what was your degree?’
‘Huh? History and Sociology.’
‘You know, you’d fit right in at our place. Our Policy Unit would have you like a shot.’
Grey waited at the door to Rose’s office as she came back upstairs,
‘All made up?’
‘Better — I think I’ve just been offered a job. Don’t worry,’ she said in response to his look of horror, ‘I’m in no hurry to take it… though it’s always nice to be asked.’
Back in the room there was much brooding, their visitor gone and so the staff now free to show their true feelings. Inspector Glass was already reflecting the discussion through his pragmatic lens,
‘So Patrick Mars has been home alone all week, with time and space to brood, free as a bird to come and go from his house at all hours.’
‘It’s more than that,’ thundered Superintendent Rose, who hated dishonesty above all other things, ‘it means we have a recorded lie of his on tape. What’s more, he obviously intended to get his wife to lie to us too.’
‘But that’s not all bad, sir,’
‘Go on, Grey.’
‘It also means he hoped to get to her before we did.’
‘To feed her his alibi… so she’s not coming back this evening, and might already be here. Glass, have your men on the street look out for Ludmila Mars returning home and pluck her off the pavement before Mars knows she’s back.’
‘It might be better if we knew how she was arriving, sir; then we could catch her before there’s any risk of him seeing a commotion in his own street.’
‘I’d say our best bet’s the train,’ thought Cori, struggling to remember if anything had been said in the Mars interview.
Rose had the same thought, ‘Check the tape, would you? Does she drive? Sarah, check DVLA now. Where did that photo go?’ Rose looked through the copies of what documents Robert Grange had been able to leave them, searching for the colour reproduction of her photograph held on file.
‘Here it is — now would you look at that — have it blown up and a copy passed to every officer we have out there. Meanwhile, Glass, let’s get a car at each end of Mansard Lane, stopping any young woman until we get them the photo.’
The group dispersed to attend to their allotted tasks, each knowing that at any moment a company owner like Mars could choose to knock off work and be coming home.
The photograph of Ludmila Sergeyevna would have stood out as a magazine cover, let alone a passport photo — pale skin, blonde hair, willowy looks; and at five foot ten (as the file advised them she was) then Grey hoped easily distracting of the attention of the men amongst the officers Glass had positioned in the vicinity of her house. But it was those sent to the town’s train station — and not a moment too soon — who almost managed to miss her. Arriving to cover all exits, two carsful of them spotted her walking from the platform of the just arrived four-fifteen from London, beside her a grateful porter carrying her cases.
‘Mrs Mars, I’m Inspector Rase of Southney Police.’
‘I am a citizen here. I have papers…’ She displayed the sudden panic of one used to more robust state apparatus. Grey stopped her as she went for her ‘papers’ evidently held at all times in her leather shoulderbag,
‘You’re in no trouble yourself, please be assured of that; but if you could spare a few minutes to talk to us… I can see you’re desperate to get home.’
‘Is this another immigration raid, like you carried out on my mother?’
‘We’re not immigration, we’re the police.’
And then something in her clicked, ‘It’s Patrick, isn’t it. What’s he done?’ she asked with barely an accent. ‘He’s finally done something, hasn’t he?’
‘It would be better if we spoke in private.’
‘It’s that company of his. They’ve finally killed someone.’
‘If you’ll come this way.’
No sooner were they back in Cori’s car, Glass in front, Grey in the back beside their passenger, than she was talking again,
‘I am a good wife, an honest wife. All is above board with us.’
‘There is no doubt of that, no doubt at all.’
‘I obey the law in England, so none of this is to do with me. It’s Patrick, isn’t it?’ she asked again, Grey seeing no use in denying it.
‘Has he done something very bad?’
Again, little point in answering.
But she was canny, ‘There wouldn’t be all of you policemen if it wasn’t something bad.’ She could see the squad car, full of what uniformed officers had been available, behind them. ‘I have the right to stay in this country.’
‘That isn’t in our power to take from you. We’re police officers,’ again Grey attempted to reassure her.
‘Then I want protection from him, so he can never get to me; then I’ll tell you everything you want to know. I can tell you what he’s like, what he talks about, how he treats me like you wouldn’t believe any Englishman would treat his wife…’
‘Mrs Mars, we can’t talk here, we need you on tape.’ Grey tried hopelessly to stem the flow.
‘He wouldn’t even let me have my mother stay — he called the immigration people, I know it. It was him who told them her visa had expired…’
Thankfully the journey between stations was a short one, the need for cars little more than necessary affectation, and they were soon disgorged, the lady being processed in reception before being taken to the interview room.
‘A beautiful woman,’ remarked Inspector Glass while waiting in the corridor.
‘Well she would be, would she,’ observed Cori without emotion. ‘Mars wouldn’t have paid all that money to fetch her into Britain if she weren’t.’
They didn’t yet know how much he had paid to ‘fetch her over’, but the point still held for Glass, who said,
‘No need to be jealous though, Sergeant. I’m sure he’d have paid just as much to bring you over, had you come from the same village in the Urals.’
‘That’s very reassuring, thank you,’ she answered so blankly that he didn’t even get the sarcasm.
‘Enough banter, what’s happening?’ The Superintendent had had calls to make and was eager for news.
Glass was still buzzing from his operation’s success,
‘Sir, she’s about ready to finger him for the murder of Sir Thomas More, the sinking of the Lusitania and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre.’
Rose turned to the Sergeant for more sense,
‘She says she’ll tell us “everything you want to know” in return for us keeping her away from him.’
‘And what’s that then?’
‘Not sure yet, though we will do in half an hour.’
‘Right then, Glass, get out to your men in the field. We need to stay close to this fellow — we don’t know what he’ll do when he realises his wife isn’t coming back this afternoon…’
‘If he sees us he’ll be onto us in a flash,’ he said, leaving.
‘We’ll have to tell Mars she’s here sooner or later,’ reminded Cori, ‘if only as he’s expecting us to call her to confirm his alibi.’
‘How are we going to play this?’ the Super asked rhetorically as he headed to the viewing room. ‘We have an hour or two yet,’ he answered himself. ‘Let’s hear what the lady says.’
Chapter 17 — Ludmila Mars
Grey gave the time and date to the tape, before adding, ‘…present are Sergeant Smith, Constable Mills and Inspector Rase; interviewing Lidia Mars, formerly Ludmila Sergeyevna Grechko.
‘How would you like to be addressed?’
‘By my given name, now I’m to be free of him.’
‘Just Ludmila: we Russians carry our fathers around all our lives; but I’ve been free of him too these four years now.’
‘Just Ludmila then.’ (She smiled.) ‘Now, this interview relates to a series of crimes that we believe your husband…’
‘Former husband: I’ll never be in a room with that man again.’
You might have to be, and it might be a courtroom, thought Grey. ‘…that we believe Patrick Mars may had been involved in, yet for which he has given us an alibi apparently confirmable by yourself. Ludmila, were you at the house on Mansard Lane during the evening of Monday of this week or the early hours of Tuesday?’
‘Or during the evening of Tuesday of this week and the early hours of today?’
‘Where were you in fact at these times?’
‘I’ve been in London, with my mother.’
‘Her immigration case is being heard this week, I believe.’
‘I’m supporting her.’
‘When did it begin?’
‘On Monday — I travelled on Sunday, and stayed at a hotel.’
‘So you cannot confirm your… Patrick Mars ’ alibi?’
‘Do you know why he might have lied to us to say you were with him?’
‘When were you intending to return?’
‘I don’t know. The case is still going on, and I am keen to get back to it.’
‘So you had no plan to return this evening?’
‘And so how come you have come back this evening?’
‘Because Patrick phoned me and demanded I return that minute and come straight home. He said I’d had long enough with my mother, and that I’d stayed away too long, that I was letting him down being away so long and that a good wife stays at home with her husband.’
‘Did he give any specific reason why you must return?’
‘He said there was an emergency, that I’d caused it by not being here, and that he needed me back right away.’
‘You’d caused it?’
‘Everything’s my fault with him. Even when I’m not there he finds a way to blame me.’
‘What time did he phone?’
‘I’m not sure. Around lunchtime. I caught the first train I could.’
Mars thought fast in his interview, thought Grey: he calculated how quickly he could contact Ludmila, get her back here, and drill her in what to tell the police to confirm his alibi before they tracked her down for themselves.
‘How did you feel about this request to come back?’
‘I was fuming. I knew I had to go back, but I was going to give him hell for it.’
‘Would he have enjoyed that?’
‘Probably not, but then we argue often. We can both live with it.’
‘You said just then that you’re now “free of him”. Why are you glad to be free of your husband?’
‘You ask me that, after what I tell you?’
‘Tell me more.’
‘He’s proud, pig-headed, impossible to live with! He wants the house kept just as it is, everything in its place, everything tidy. He won’t change anything, won’t let me bring friends over: he says we make too much noise and make a mess. He say’s they’re all alcoholics and that we break his precious things.’
‘And what makes him say that?’
‘I have friends — other wives whose husbands don’t talk to them — and when they come over I entertain them: we have food and drinks and laugh. Is that unusual? He hates laughter except his own. When he comes home early and finds us there he gets grumpy and won’t talk to them, and goes to his room.’
Grey noticed her wavering between the past and present tense, as though she still hadn’t aligned herself to the reality that those days may well be over.
‘His own room?’
‘He has his own room where he likes to read: like a study, with a view of the back garden.’
‘And the breakages?’
She looked down at the featureless table, ‘Once he came home and a piece of glass had got broken, a vase on the windowsill. One of us had knocked it — it could have happened at any time, Inspector.’
‘What was it like?’
She looked at him quizzically, as if wondering how that could be important, then tried to remember, ‘All spikey and different colours. You couldn’t put many flowers in it, but it did look nice when the sun shone through it.’
Cori gave Grey a look as if to say, that had been his mother’s.
Ludmila continued, wholly present tense for now, ‘He always panics when the cleaners come, he worries they’ll break something. He can’t look.’ She suddenly gasped as though in disgust at some recalled memory, ‘He asks me to watch them: he thinks, because they might be from Poland or Romania it’s as though we’re all one country. He think’s I’ll have an…’
‘Yes, an affinity with them, because we’ve all travelled over from the “same” place. But they hate me, the girls, because I got to be the wife and they’re only the cleaners, that they have to work and I don’t. Ha, they think I don’t work every day?
‘Anyway, I bought another vase — it cost a lot, and was the closest I could find — but he wouldn’t have it there in the window, and moved it away.’
‘Was it valuable?’
‘The broken one? He never said,’ she quietened, ‘but it meant a lot to him, it upset him. I felt sad for him.’
‘You mentioned “his precious things”?’
‘His house is like a museum, a…’
‘Shrine? Tribute? Memorial?’
‘Yes, maybe like a memorial.’
‘To his family, his past.’ Her attitude suddenly hardened, ‘His precious family, but where are they? There’s not one of them around, not one who visits.’
‘Did he talk of them?’
‘It’s who he doesn’t talk about, like they’ve left a hole.’
‘Their presence, you mean? A space left where they ought to be?’
She nodded eagerly, it having been put as she understood it.
‘Please, go on.’
‘Like, I don’t know if he ever had a brother or sister.’
‘And what of his parents?’
At this she paused, ‘He did mention his father, in terms of the house, “Dad built this”, “Dad was proud of that”.’
‘He said it with pride?’
‘Yes, that is why he keeps things as they are, because they were how his father had them.’
‘But his mother?’
‘His mother wasn’t known to me. He never mentioned her and I learnt not to ask. But he remembered them both, you could tell: their things must be left as they were, not changed, barely even dusted over by the cleaners. Certain items: furniture, pictures.’
She shook her head in remembrance, ‘He has a painting, over the fireplace, of black mountains and this horrible bear. I hated that picture, but he wouldn’t let me move it, I had to sit with it… over me.’
‘Yes, looming over me, whenever I was in the room; looming, like those mountains, like that bear! I wanted to put it outside, move it, even just to the hall, anywhere; but he wouldn’t let me. He said his parents had bought it for him and he wanted it “where I can see it every day”.’ She snorted in derision.
‘And he felt like that about a lot of things?’
‘Certain corners of the house, old furniture, wooden panels. I found them gloomy but he wouldn’t let me move them or repaint them, even re-varnish them as they were very dirty, some of them. You know how varnish can go black.’
The grimness of the image required fresh questions to counter it,
‘Ludmila, had either of you been married before?’
‘You haven’t been,’ he guessed, ‘but Patrick has?’
‘I haven’t, no. I was only Twenty-one when I came here.’
‘But your husband?’
‘No… I don’t know. He never mentions anyone… but once he was on the phone, in the other room, talking to someone loudly, like a lawyer. He was saying, “What is she demanding? What does she want now?” and then, “What do you mean, she doesn’t want anything? So what are you calling me for?”’
‘You didn’t wonder who it was he was talking about?’
‘I knew before we met that he was older than me, that he would have had other women, maybe children.’
‘But you never asked?’
‘He never told.’
‘And there was nothing said about other Mars’s?’
‘Like I say, they were missing. Though in that house it felt like they were all around.’
‘But even with all this you would have stayed with him?’
‘Yes, I think so. But if he’s in trouble I want no part, not when it’s nothing to do with me. I’ve supported him enough.’
This struck Grey dumb a moment, and she spoke to fill the silence,
‘Well it’s his company, isn’t it; his “boys”? But what’s that to do with his home, and with has family, and with me?’
Grey realised a misapprehension had been allowed to remain too long,
‘Ludmila, I’m afraid it’s not to do with his company, in fact… Did Patrick ever talk of his mother?’
‘No, I told you.’
‘But — what am I asking here? — did he ever say anything that gave you the impression that he even knew if she were alive or dead?’
‘No. Is she? I know nothing of her.’
‘Did he ever mention a place call the Cedars?’
‘The old people’s home? No, never. Is that where she..? Maybe his company did security there? I don’t know.’
‘Ludmila, you won’t have seen the local papers this week, and so you won’t know that a woman living there was killed on Monday night,’ (Ludmila went rigid in her seat.) ‘and a man from there killed on the Hills estates the night after. Mrs Mars, we…’
‘I don’t want to do this. Let me leave, please. Let me out of here.’ The woman was shaking and this motion was transferred to her chair that now scratched on the floor, she gripping the handles as if unsure of whether to push herself up out of it or hold onto it for support.
‘You are in no trouble, you are not involved,’ implored Grey; but that was not what was bothering their interviewee, guessed Cori present throughout; rather it was the notion that the Inspector was obviously driving at: that the man she had been living with these four years was a killer.
Ludmila’s panic settled into a kind of cold dread, as Cori asked the female Constable at the door to fetch a doctor and went around to the other side of the table.
‘This interview is suspended at…’ began Grey; but Ludmila was talking over him and so his hand hovered over the Stop button; she continuing,
‘Those arguments we had. You don’t know what we would say, what we’d shout, how we’d threaten to kill each other, destroy each other’s favourite things. He’d say I’d never see my family again, I’d say I’d burn down his house when he was at work; he’d say he’d hit me, I’d say I’d stab him; he said he’d kill me. He said he’d kill me…’
Chapter 18 — A Fork in the Road
The lady was removed upstairs to the Inspector’s office, where hot drinks were brought and the doctor was attending; alongside the family liaison officer who seemed to Grey to be almost always at the station in some capacity. Cori and Grey remained downstairs in the empty interview room, nursing bad coffee and feeling the atmosphere that lingered. The room was oddly charged as though the walls remembered what had just happened, the air still reverberating Ludmila’s last words, resonant from her shaking chair.
‘Perhaps I do need to go on more of those courses Rose is forever being pestered to put us on,’ mused Grey. ‘“Interviewing with Sensitivity” or “Fostering Empathy”. Aren’t those the kind of titles?’
‘Maybe,’ answered Cori con-committedly. She didn’t like hearing him talk like this. This was no time for him to lose his nerve, she thought.
‘A situation like that needs more skills than I am blessed with.’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ reflected his Sergeant, who had something of the personal touch herself, ‘Sometimes these courses seem to suggest that if you relax a person and build up a rapport with them that there still wont be a truth that isn’t known one moment and which needs to be made known the next. I’m not sure a simple way of saying something hard isn’t the best way, or that any way would have made it easier for her to bear just now.
‘Anyway, sir, time to get down to business, down to brass tacks.’
‘The broken vase was telling,’ though Grey aloud. ‘He still values some memory of his mother even as he believes she abandoned him.’
‘There’s a conflict there,’ she concurred.
‘And Ludmila was touched in turn by those feelings, trying her best to replace the vase for him, when at other times she was threatening to “burn down his house”.’
As Grey shook his head at this, Cori’s own thoughts though were more practical, she summarising,
‘Mars has no alibi, and has had the freedom all week to come and go, to think and plan, stay up all hours, change and wash his clothes. We know that whether he knew his mother was living at the Cedars or not, he couldn’t bear to speak of her and obviously had a lot of turmoil over his parents.’
Grey thought of Mars’ house as his wife had described it, memories of his parents all around him but it evidently hurting him to talk about them,
‘I wonder,’ she posited, ‘if this freedom — time to brood, and also to get out and about unseen — is a factor in our question “why now?”’
‘It’s possible, but don’t these kind of crimes need a spark, a flaring point? You don’t schedule a killing for the next window in your diary.’
She knew he hadn’t meant that to come out as flippantly as it had done; she countering,
‘But if he’s been desperate to do it for years… What if, once a golden chance arose, he could no longer suppress the urge?
‘You’re forgetting he’s a company man, a boss, free to come in at ten, leave at two, and take a three-hour lunch if he wanted.’
‘But they’re all daytime hours, sir.’
‘But doesn’t his firm handle security? Wouldn’t that be twenty-four hours a day? He could easily explain away a disappearance from home as a visit to one of his sites. It’s a shame we can’t ask Ludmila now if he took many “business trips”.’
Back up to speed, his mind was already again snagging, as was its habit, on certain words, phrases, fragments of conversation,
‘What you said back there: “wash his clothes”.’
‘He’s had all week, sir; he could have put them through the cycle two or three times.’
‘But what if he hasn’t? A wife, cleaners? I doubt he’s lifted a finger to look after himself for years. Maybe it’s ingrained?’
‘You think he’d just leave them for someone else to do, even his clothes from the crime scenes?’
‘I’m a man, Cori, you don’t know how little we try and get away with doing for ourselves. It doesn’t sound that far-fetched to me. And what of those cleaners?’ he added, pursuing his theme. ‘Have they still been coming in to look after him? Would they know his comings and going?’
‘Maybe not that late in the evening, I’d have thought,’ she said, unsure of this whole argument.
‘But they might have noticed if he’s been sleeping in late or taking charge of the washing machine.’
‘Checking any of this involves going back to the house, sir,’ she added as if he didn’t know, but also knowing that one of them had to voice these things. ‘Which we told him we would be anyway, sooner or later.’
‘Well, we’ll see what the Super agrees to.’
After lingering over a meal in the still-open station cafeteria — his first of the day — the Inspector turned round at the table to face the young female officer who had just appeared at his shoulder.
‘Hello sir, a woman’s just called to leave a message for you in reception. She couldn’t stop, but said to give you this; she said that you’d know what it was, and that she’d call you in the morning.’
Thanking her, Grey took the folded piece of paper, which he knew would be from Janice, the social worker. There were just two words on the note: “Patrick Mars”.
Dodging up the stairs toward the offices, he saw his Sergeant waiting to go into Superintendent Rose’s room. His own office occupied by Ludmila Mars and the female officer keeping an eye on her, a nod of the head brought Cori to instead join him in a vacant space he found further along the corridor, and to which he quickly pulled the door to after them; showing her the note in the barely lit space (for it was now early evening) and explaining,
‘This is from Janice, the social worker.’
‘“Patrick Mars”’, read Cori on the note. ‘So he is Esther’s father?’
Grey nodded, ‘Now we know. He did have a first wife: Maisie.’
Cori told it to herself aloud as simply as possible, ‘Esther is Patrick Mars’ daughter. Esther is Stella Dunbar’s granddaughter.’
So strongly had the pair of them been denying the inevitable here, ever since the visit to the Wheelwright’s, that confirmation of the fact hardly felt like news to them: the fact that here were not two broken homes, only one home doubly broken.
‘That would be Esther’s secret then, wouldn’t it?’ Cori mused, as if only for herself, ‘The thing not even her best friend or social worker could help her with, but only a member of her family, her biological family…’
‘The family that Esther’s present circumstances find her entirely divorced from,’ added Grey, ‘she living apart from both mother and father. And how quickly would you want to wait before being able to confirm such a secret fact? You certainly wouldn’t wait till the next scheduled visit to your mother, or even the end of the next school day; especially not an impetuous girl like Esther sounds.’
‘Point for discussion, sir: Is it conceivable that Stella was tutoring Esther without either knowing what they were to the other?’
Grey quickly checked off possibilities, ‘Neither has a name the other would recognise, neither seem ever to have met elsewhere. Stella left Patrick growing up with Samuel when he was seven, and had had no contact with her son…’
‘…or his son’s family…’
‘…since. As for Esther, would her father have told her anything of the mother he considers abandoned him, before himself cutting all ties with his own wife and daughter?’
‘There are two schisms here, aren’t there. Who painful divorces.’
‘And it’s meant that hardly one member of the clan Mars is still in touch with any other.’
‘Esther was about to explode this.’
‘I think she might already have done so.’ He went on, ‘Our questions had been: one, when did Mars learn his mother was in town; and two, why choose that night to kill her?’
‘If he killed her.’
‘We’re surely passed that point now.’
Cori was conceding this fact too.
‘But what if the questions are actually: when did either Stella or Esther learn who the other was; or if Stella knew before, why choose that day to tell Esther? Because it’s certain, however long Stella might have known, that Esther didn’t till that night, as it was obviously the shock of learning it that sent her from town in a hurry.’
‘Maybe Stella didn’t tell her,’ thought Cori. ‘Perhaps Esther found out on her own; and that would explain why she sought Stella out at the flat late that evening long after her lesson was over.’
‘God, I wish we could interview Esther this evening.’
There was a knock on the door, it opening anyway,
‘I thought I saw you creeping in here,’ said Inspector Glass. ‘Not interrupting, am I?’
‘Not at all: just discussing recently received and very sensitive information.’
‘Can I share?’
‘The girl who was seen on the stairs that night is Mars’ daughter.’
‘Then that’s it then, isn’t it? What you were talking about, the link between them, the way he found out?’
‘Is it?’ Grey was asking Cori as much as himself; she concurring in his doubt,
‘But we don’t know that they’ve even spoke since the family split.’
‘She must have done,’ answered Glass blithely, ‘on that evening. See, it’s good to share. I’ve just solved your mystery for you.’
‘We were coming to tell you all.’
‘The Three M’s are all in place,’ expounded the Superintendent once his officers were gathered around him. ‘His Method his strength, his Means the freedom he’s had to come and go unseen this week, and his Motive the emotions backed up since childhood; and now you think we’ve a way of explaining how Mars knew his mother was living at the Cedars?’
‘Well, we didn’t quite say that sir.’
‘Come on, Grey, we’ve been over this.’ Glass was agitant. ‘You told us his daughter had found out who Stella was that night.’
‘The daughter was estranged from him, sir. We can’t know anything until we speak to her tomorrow.’
‘I say we bring him in, sir, at least for questioning.’
‘And what do you say, Grey?’
‘I say wait, sir; at least until we can say for certain if anything passed between Esther and Mars that evening.’
‘In that I concur.’
‘So where does that leave us?’ asked Glass agog.
Rose explained, ‘It leaves us unable to arrest him without any way of proving he even knew his mother was at the Cedars to be able to go and attack her there — and we still haven’t the first notion of why he then went after poor old Charlie Prove. Now we’ve more than enough grounds to bring Mars in for a second interview: not least the fact that we know he’s lied to us and his alibi’s fallen through; but you all know as well as I do that timing is everything in these situations, and that bringing Mars in before we’re iron-clad can leave us running out of interview hours before we have the proof we need to charge him.’
‘So we leave a dangerous man on the loose?’
‘Not if your men are doing their jobs right, Glass.’
‘Well, you can count on that, sir.’
‘It was never in doubt.’
‘But surely, in the interests of public safety…’
‘And where’s the public safety in us finding nothing in the house, the girl being too scared to speak, he giving nothing away in interview; and twenty-four hours later having to release him, he free as a bird and knowing everything we know about him?’
Rose concluded, ‘No, I’m sorry Glass. It’s an impossible choice, but mine to have to make. Sorry also that you find yourself with this unpleasant bit of overtime ahead of you, and the pressures of what might happen if anyone slips up; but I really don’t see any other way. Grey? You’re thoughts on tomorrow?’
Grey knew his answer was important, ‘If we get the chance to speak to Esther — and she’s a vulnerable child, so it’s no way guaranteed — then I think we can then say for certain if we have a case.’
‘But I have to warn you, sir. Guilty though I believe Mars to be; from what we’ve learnt of his familial relations, and given that Esther’s mother won’t have anything to do with him, even to the point of not asking him for maintenance, then I don’t know if a daughter of his would ever want to get in touch with him, especially alone and of an evening.’
‘Even if it was only to confirm something as important as this?’
Grey had to concede the logic of that point, but couldn’t convince himself,
‘No. Sorry sir, there it is.’
‘Well, it’s all speculation anyway until tomorrow. Now we’ve a question of what to do with him. Do we acknowledge that we won’t be coming to see him this evening as he’s surely expecting (after telling us that that was when his wife was returning)? Do even tell him his wife’s here?’
Grey shook his head, ‘Any contact could enflame him when we need him calm.’
‘So could no contact,’ added his Sergeant sagely. ‘And we don’t know what he has planned for tonight: a call from us might make him delay any other attacks.’
There wasn’t one of them in the room who enjoyed this situation. Their boss considered, before answering,
‘Then let’s call him and make an appointment for him to come in at, say, noon tomorrow?’
‘And if he asks about his wife?’ asked Grey.
It was Glass who spoke, ‘He won’t: if he suspects she’s talking to us then he’ll be too scared of what she’s saying; and if he doesn’t then he’ll think she’s just ignored him and stayed in London.’
Grey was impressed with the deduction.
‘Then call him, Grey, and make the appointment.’ Rose wound things up, ‘Glass, you’ve men in place? Shifts covered?’ (The uniformed division Inspector nodded) ‘Then we reconvene tomorrow. Those that can, go home: it may be a long day.’
Chapter 19 — Night Watch
But Inspector Rase couldn’t switch off that easily. Grey followed Glass down to the mess room to where he was speaking to one of his men on the radio,
‘He’s home? He didn’t see you? Good good, then keep the cars at each end of the road and have one driving past every half hour. I’ll be down when I can.’
Glass signed off and spoke to Grey,
‘We replaced the squadcars with our own and put the team in civvies. Mansard Lane’s a long road with a dogleg, no alleyways or turnoffs: it really couldn’t be better.’
Knowing Mars was home, and knowing that to put it off would be fatal, Grey took the information sheet that the man had filled in at reception over to a desk in the corner and made his call.
‘How did it go?’ asked Cori as he replaced the receiver?
‘Fine, fine.’ He was shaking. ‘Noon it is.’
‘How did he sound?’
‘Calm; perhaps ever-so-slightly rattled, but then that might just have been me.’
‘Any sense we were on to him?’
Grey didn’t know, ‘He might just be worried about his wife.’
‘Or worried for what she could tell us.’
‘Well, don’t start underestimating him, will you, sir. Remember how confident he was this morning, and remember what we think he might have done.’
“Might have done” — his Sergeant’s lingering faith in the presumption of innocence was heartening. Instructing her point-blank to go home, he himself refused her offer of a lift choosing instead to walk to his own residence, or at least into the town centre. He thought of a visit to the Young Prince Hal, but alcohol wouldn’t have helped and he sensed he needed his own thoughts clear just now. Once on the High Street though, he knew where he wanted to go.
Spotting him through the evening’s gloom before he got there, his colleagues opened the car window just enough to instruct him to get in the back. In the front seats were the female Constable he had spoken to at the station earlier, and beside her not the officer he guessed was her partner off duty also but rather the guard at the Cedars last night, the one helping the Carstairs’ as Charlie Prove got away unseen,
‘You were up all last night too,’ Grey asked him. ‘Have you slept?’
‘I got a few hours this afternoon, sir.’
‘And you were on shift at the station today,’ he said, turning to his colleague.
‘I’m only here till ten, sir,’ she answered. ‘Anyway, it’s all hands to the pump for those of us not away for the Conference.’
Ah yes, the Conference, Grey remembered. One of the major political parties was holding its Spring Conference in a nearby city that week, which these days meant as many police were needed as politicians, and so causing a drain on manpower on all surrounding forces.
He thought of her and her boyfriend: when did they find time to be together with their shift patterns? It was probably for that reason that Glass posted them apart tonight.
‘It’s been all quiet, sir,’ said the young man. ‘Apart from a couple of fellows off to the pub we’ve hardly seen a soul since sundown.’
Grey wondered if they were men he knew, who another night he might be drinking with? Much though he loved his job and lived for the drama of such evenings, there was a part of him that hated how a case like this made him solitary, took him out of civic life, made the only people he spoke to other policemen.
‘Here’s the car just come past the house,’ said the female officer. ‘Anything?’ she asked the radio as the vehicle sailed past unacknowledgingly.
‘Negative,’ the answer came. ‘Downstairs lights are still on, no movement.’ The radio went back to silence as the other car’s lights faded to nothing in the rear-view mirror, leaving the three of them once more alone.
‘So what will you do now?’ asked Grey.
‘Just wait here, sir. Keep our eyes open. Do you want coffee?’
Under no obligation to be alert himself he refused the drink,
‘You don’t mind if I rest my bones back here awhile?’ he asked, knowing they were hardly going to refuse.
A gentle knocking woke him, ‘Have I been asleep?’
‘You didn’t miss much,’ his juniors replied as an older Constable, proof that not everyone was in this for a career, again rapped a knuckle against the window,
‘You’re off, Tash,’ he said as she opened the driver’s door to him, she stretching as she lifted herself out of her set position. ‘The Sarge’s parked back around the corner, he’ll run you home.’
The man replaced her and shut the door, ‘Evening, sir, didn’t see you back there.’
‘Evening. Don’t mind me, I’m only an observer.’
‘Waiting for something to happen, eh sir?’
‘Yep, just the same as the rest of us.’
‘Any left in that flask, Pete? The wife’s packed a new one and some sandwiches.’
‘Lovely, what you got? Any ham?’
As the conversation between the men in the front seats returned to more pressing matters, the Inspector’s phone rang.
‘Best answer it in here, sir,’ said the older man as he poured. ‘You’d be amazed how a voice can carry at night.’
But it was only the station anyway,
‘Hope I’m not keeping you up, sir,’ said a voice from the reception desk.
‘No, not at all. What is it?’
‘It’s Mrs Mars, sir. She’s called from the hotel we put her in: she says she doesn’t feel safe there; and we can’t really spare an officer to go on guard duty there all night. Apart from the cells we don’t have much else to offer her.’
‘Okay, she’s at the Havahostel?’
‘No, the Royal in town.’
Well, the Inspector wouldn’t have minded a night at the Royal Hotel himself. He’d been a member of their dining club once, though he hadn’t felt he’d been looked at quite the same there since having to investigate a fellow member.
‘Tell her there’ll be a car outside for her in five minutes.’
‘Very good, sir.’
He rang off and spoke to the men in front of him, ‘Radio the Sergeant, would you, and have him wait for me around the corner.’
The car was another plain one, it’s engine revving at the curb almost inaudibly, little more than a low resonance.
‘We were just going to run down Mansard Lane first, sir,’ said the Sergeant as Grey got in. ‘If you’ve time?’
He realised he hadn’t visited the Mars’ home yet, but felt he knew it from Ludmila’s description. Turning back on themselves and passing the Constables eating ham sandwiches in their car, they drove onto Mansard Lane and along that strip of large villas, spaced out and atmospheric in the streetlight and set back behind trees. The road to Grey reeked of mystery, and despite himself he could only think of the affairs that could be carried out behind these low-lit windows, the clinches snatched beneath the trees’ long shadows.
It was with a jolt that the Sergeant said, ‘Here’s Mars’ house.’
They slowed and barely revved as the modern car glid between the parked cars and along the smooth tarmac. All eyes were to the left through, to the house no different to the others, its downstairs bay lit up, the porch and all other windows put out. Yet there was movement as they came near — a figure at the window looking out and following the car as it didn’t stop but instead carried on along the Lane.
‘D’you think he saw us?’ asked Natasha, tiredness kept from her voice still, though her shift was nearly over.
‘I don’t think so,’ answered Grey from his better viewpoint through the rear window. ‘It’s getting late now. He’s waiting for his wife. If she came home now she’d get a taxi.’
‘Target seen in house,’ said the Sergeant into the radio. ‘Repeat, target seen in house.’
They found the end of the Lane, and past the junction saw a car Grey thought might have been that end’s guard. Grey liked the night, liked how things looked in it: the inky blacks and silver highlights of a vintage photograph. As they moved along the almost empty roads past shaded buildings and neon-lit shopfronts, Grey found he was thinking of Patrick Mars alone at his front window, waiting for… what? His wife? For justice to catch up with him? For the people he might already have guessed were watching him to show themselves? These thoughts brought with them a feeling, one deep and mournful and untamed by good sense, and as they reached Natasha’s flats Grey realised it was pity.
Thankfully Natasha lived not far from the centre, and they were soon again nearing the town.
‘How long you on duty for?’ asked the Sergeant for conversation.
‘I’m not sure that I still am,’ answered the Inspector.
‘I know that feeling.’
Chapter 20 — Kicking Over the Traces
Ludmila Mars met them at the hotel before they could get out of the car, she emerging from the reception’s glass doors behind which she must have been waiting. The men got out to load her belongings, which were only what she’d brought off the train.
‘I need somewhere to stay,’ she began once in the car.
‘Of course. Another hotel can be arranged…’
The obvious other option was the Havahostel, that though reassuringly out-of-town, was hardly comforting in its joyless fittings.
‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘Somewhere with a guard. You tell me he killed his mother, and then you want me to be left alone with him on the loose?’
Back in their seats, the Sergeant leant into the Inspector’s shoulder, ‘Sir, we’ve hardly the men to cover routine patrols with all this going on, let alone for guarding hotel rooms.’ Grey considered this, the man whispering, ‘I’m afraid it’s one of the offices upstairs at the station, or a night in the cells.’
Her protests at this overheard proposal could barely begin however, before Grey said,
‘I know somewhere you can stay, somewhere that’s already under guard.’
‘Hello, I’m Rachel. I’m the Duty Manager.’
‘Ludmila.’ the lady introduced herself, shaking the offered hand.
‘And this is Christopher.’ Grey introduced the Constable in high-visibility tabard emerging from a patrol around the grounds. ‘And he’ll be on duty all night.’
‘I don’t have a change of clothes, for the morning.’ said Ludmila suddenly. ‘Everything’s dirty from London.’
But the Duty manager smiled, ‘That’s okay, we look about the same size. I’ll see what I can find, though I can’t promise mine will be as stylish. Now you look like you could use a hot drink. Inspector, you too?’
He saw no harm in joining them, dropping back to say to Rachel,
‘Thank you for doing this.’
‘Not a problem: it does me good to have people to look after. She can’t go home tonight, you said on the phone?’
‘I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me any more than that?’
He smiled wanly; she knowingly, before instructing, ‘The door on the left,’ to the lady walking ahead of them. They entered the dimmed elegance of the dayroom for Grey to find Rachel had set up the same arrangement of bedding as she had for him the previous evening.
‘I’ve put some pyjamas out for you; they’re quite thin but I don’t think it will be a cold night.’
‘Thank you. I don’t feel the cold.’
‘I hope you don’t mind sleeping in such a large room.’
‘Back home we used to sleep on the plains in the summer, following the animals. No room could be as big as that sky.’
Grey noticed her accent was returning too, the fake English housewife finding her way back to a girlhood on the Steppes.
‘My room’s just next door if you fancy a nightcap,’ offered Rachel.
‘Perhaps a glass of water?’ asked Ludmila.
‘Of course, I’ll be right back. Oh, it’s you.’
Grey turned also to see Derek Waldron standing at the door to the dayroom; Rachel introducing,
‘Derek, this is Ludmila: she’ll be staying here with us tonight. Now, come on you pair, give a lady a chance to change. Call if you want anything,’ she instructed before leading the men from the dayroom and to the door to her own quarters,
‘Do you have to go, Inspector? We were going to have a last drink?’
He followed them into the flat whose layout, he realised now he had become more familiar with the building, eerily echoed that of Stella’s rooms two floors up,
‘Like all of them I suppose,’ he murmured.
‘The layout of the rooms, like Stella’s.’ From the lounge he saw their hostess filling a glass at the sink, while Derek already had a pan of milk heating on the small stove, his familiarity with her arrangements evidently betraying a common arrangement between them.
‘The architects didn’t waste time on such frivolities as individuality,’ chuckled Rachel as she poured the glass of water.
‘They were Modernists, Inspector, from the Nineteen-thirties.’ Derek Waldron took up what was evidently a favourite theme, ‘You’ll have noticed the clean lines, the lack of ornament, the light brought into every room.’
‘Too much light sometimes: those corridors can be baking,’ said Rachel as she left to take Ludmila her water.
‘As with Regency terraces, there is a consistency of design throughout that the Post-Modernists cannot, indeed do not, hope to equal.’
The man needed little prompting to continue, as he waiting for the milk to warm, ‘It means that the simplicity of the steel and concrete frames they use nowadays mean the architects can dress up the outside of a building any way they like, often garishly so.’ The milk must already have been near boiling for Derek was now tilting it from the pan and into mugs.
‘She’s already in bed; can hardly keep her eyes open, poor pet,’ said Rachel returning. ‘What have you put her through, Inspector?’
But Derek was on a charge and wouldn’t be interrupted, ‘Buildings no longer have to look like what they’re made of or what they do.’
‘Don’t get him started, Inspector, or we’ll be hearing of Gothic arches and Doric columns all night. Let me rescue you. Come into the lounge, where you can talk to us of love and the law.’
So that was why she’d asked him here, for another grilling over the raid on Sophia’s. Yet even that discussion was over quick enough, she not disputing as he asked her, once both sat down around her coffee table with their mugs,
‘You know we’ve already a folder full of complaints?’
‘Yes, and little enough done about them.’
‘I have some experience of how these things work, and I’d have to tell you that if you keep pushing then something will be done; though you’d have to be prepared for everything that goes on there being gone over in public.’
Grey remembered talking to Derek Waldron in this room before, though on that occasion sat at the table in the window. How different the room had seemed in daylight, barely the same place in fact. Suffering the curse of the groundfloor flat, Grey knew the curtains would have had to have been pulled-to before the lights could come on, otherwise anything going on here could be seen across the front lawn and beyond. Even now, with the room bathed only in the warm glow of a standard lamp on one side of the chairs and on the other by an arrangement of spotlights attached to a central pole and pointing at odd angles, Grey knew that without drapes they would have been perfectly visible from the pavement.
Derek joined them, and reaching behind him from Rachel’s sideboard brought out a bottle of whisky he used to top up each mug. Grey, comfy in his chair, acceded. Derek broke the silence as he poured,
‘It’s not the same though,’
‘No, not without Stella and Charlie,’ concurred Rachel.
‘They used to join you?’
‘Off and on. Sometimes Stella just didn’t want to go to bed early, but she couldn’t manage much past eleven.’ She smiled at the reminiscence. ‘Though you’ve reminded me Derek, talking about the flats back there: she didn’t used to like you talking about your old buildings, did she. It used to needle her for some reason.’
‘Well it would do, wouldn’t it,’ said Grey, before remembering Rachel’s own comment on that first day: that in Stella’s life “there are decades unaccounted for”, and so even Rachel might not have known of her friend’s earlier days spent opposing redevelopment.
She hadn’t heard him though, continuing, ‘“No talking shop”, she’d say; not that she — ever the English teacher — could stop correcting our grammar or sourcing our quotations.’
‘And Charlie? What did he like to talk about?’
She sighed, seeming to sink even further into the soft chair, ‘You couldn’t really rely on Charlie for conversation. Deep within himself I think some decision had been made that there were things he wasn’t ever going to deal with before he died, and this left a kind of resignation; but a happy one, the man was happy here. I think he loved us. Wow, Derek, how much whisky have you put in my mug?’
‘No more than normal. Sorry, a bit too much?’
Grey felt it too, though not the more usual sensation for him of one too many ales.
Rachel raised her glass, ‘Well, as we have a drink let’s toast them, our lost friends. You too, Inspector. They’re your friends now, you’re their final friend,’ she repeated from Tuesday, ‘the one who solves their mystery.’
They leaned in to clunk their earthenware mugs before falling back into the chairs,
‘I like this,’ she said, ‘I like remembering them…’ then after something of a pause, ‘I miss them,’ before, ‘Oh, look at me, how daft. I’m crying.’ She went to lift herself up and fell back in the chair. This might have struck Grey as odd, she having drank so little, had his own mind not been a bit under-speed itself.
‘Time to get someone to bed,’ said Derek, taking Rachel’s unemptied cup from her hands and putting it on the table. He lifted her beneath the arms up from the chair, and carried her the short distance to her bedroom. Grey attempted to lift himself to assist.
‘No, no, don’t trouble yourself, I’ve got her.’
As he fell back enervated against the warm leather, the Inspector’s mind struggled against its shackles, recognising what wasn’t right here even as his powers weakened. The last thing Grey saw before he blacked out was the figure of Derek Waldron, returned from the bedroom and standing over him.
Chapter 21 — Wake-up Call
Whatever lie-in she had been allowed the previous day, Cornelia knew she would be required bright and early this morning. Arriving at the station by eight, to work on writing up their various interviews of the previous two days, she learnt that Janice the social worked had had similar instincts, she calling from her own office by a quarter past,
‘Sergeant, Esther and her mother arrived in town yesterday evening. They’re both staying at the Wheelwrights’, and are keen to get started. I’ve spoken to them both and am confident all is essentially well with them; though I fear for what we’ll be hearing in the interview. I’ve pencilled you in for nine, if that’s not too early..?’
‘Not at all.’
‘I assume your Inspector wants to take the lead on this. If you could let him know?’
But by a quarter to and still with no sign of him, she called Janice back,
‘The Inspector’s unavoidably occupied elsewhere: you can imagine how many irons we have in the fire at the moment. Would I do for the interview?’
‘Yes, you might be better actually. Still good for nine?’
‘You haven’t seen him, have you?’ Cori asked Sarah Cobb typing diligently across the desk from her; but as she asked around the station she learnt that there had been no sighting of the Inspector there that morning. She checked her phone, but there was still no reply to the voicemail and texts she had left him. Cori had no choice though: she had to leave if she was to make the appointment. It was fifteen minutes later, as the interview with Maisie and Esther was about to start — and with her own phone silenced — that the alarm broke.
The sensation was refreshing even as it was perplexing, and sudden, and wet. It was the feeling of instant rain falling on a desert statue and washing away the dust of centuries. A few seconds later, much less abstract now, it became the awareness of cold drips of water running quickly down his back beneath his shirt, and of the fabric there instantly clinging to his skin. These impressions were each specific and singular enough to bring him back to consciousness even before the flat palm of another’s hand caught his cheek; leaving his face and scalp reeling from half a dozen different simultaneous stingings and ringings.
‘Don’t you dare,’ coughed Grey as he open stinging eyes to see a hand waving before his face and wondering whether to slap him again.
‘Sir, what happened to you? You were out like a light?’
His face and hair and collar were soaked. The person stood before him with the dripping glass tumbler in his other hand was a Constable, deducible even in Grey’s current state from their blue uniform over white shirt. It was morning, very bright morning, even with the drapes pulled.
‘Open those curtains.’ His senses were returning now. ‘You were on guard outside. What happened?’
‘Nothing happened, not a thing all night, sir; and then I come in here to find you and you’re out cold.’
‘What time is it?
‘Around nine, sir.’
He was still on Rachel Sowton’s sofa, ‘Oh God. Rachel…’
‘She’s in the bedroom sir, spark out.’
‘Wake her, but don’t splash any water on her.’ He went to rise to follow the Constable in there, but wasn’t much less woozier than when he’d tried to stand last night. This brought the images rushing back: making the toast to absent friends with their mugs, falling back into the chair, not being able to get up again, Rachel being carried away, the man standing over him.
‘Where’s Derek Waldron?’ he called into the room before attempting to rise again, slower this time, and managing as far as the bedroom doorframe. He found the Constable with his hand behind the sleeping woman’s head, calling her name and trying to get her to drink from a tumbler of water. Another full tumbler… the details weren’t matching up: the policeman had not been back to the kitchen en-route to fill it up,
‘Where’d you get more water from?’
‘This?’ He held up the glass. ‘It was just here on the unit.’
Grey looked back into the lounge area to see that the identical tumbler emptied with force over his sleeping form had been left on the coffee table in front of where he’d been lying. Even as he tried to figure out this weird little puzzle, Grey’s overriding sensation was that he could do with a glass of it to actually drink, after having had his share go over him.
The woman was mumbling but waking.
‘Rachel, are you all right?’ called Grey from the door.
‘Uh? What’s going on?’
Grey was imagining the worst that could have happened to her.
‘She’s waking up now, sir,’ the Constable turned to him to reply. ‘She seems fine, just sleepy. Sir, you mentioned Derek just then? Is that the fellow on the first floor?’
‘Yes, he was here with us last night. I think he might have drugged us. Leave her to me, go and see if anyone’s seen him.’
‘But sir, he’s gone. He left at six this morning, told me he had an early start today.’
‘Early start doing what?’
‘He didn’t say.’
‘Then get up to his room, kick the door in if you have to, see if there’s any sign of what he’s up to; otherwise get his description out, get everyone looking for him.’
‘Sir.’ The man dashed upstairs, as Grey picked up the tumbler from the coffee table and moved more steadily now to the kitchen to fill it once for himself, and then again after knocking it straight back to take in for Rachel.
‘Rachel,’ he said in a tender croak, ‘drink this as well, you’ll be dehydrated. Don’t move if you’re hurt.’ But even as he said it he saw her face was unmarked, her discomfort no worse than his own grogginess, and the bedclothes still smoothed out beneath where she’d been placed on them.
And there had been someone else with them at the Cedars last night… Grey ran, almost going over in the process, from the flat, through the corridor and into the dayroom… where all before him were respectable citizens chatting, eating, and looking at his chaotic appearance. It was a young and distinct voice that first spoke directly to him,
‘Good morning, Inspector. Come and meet Alex, he was telling me about his visit to Russia last year.’
‘Ludmila, you’re okay?’
‘Yes, are you? You look like you slept even better than me. Are you… all right? Has something happened?’
He came to their table and sat down in sheer relief.
‘Of course, I’d learned Russian during National Service…’ continued Alex.
It was the reassuring figure of Ellie who brought Grey back to reality,
‘It looks like you could use this.’ She put a cup of coffee down before him. ‘So, a wild night over at Rachel’s place then?’
Ludmila took up the theme, ‘The Constable came in earlier, asking if anyone had seen you, as you were needed at the police station. I told him you’d been here last night with Rachel.’
‘And as we’d seen no sign of her either this morning… and here’s herself now.’
Rachel appeared at the dayroom doorway.
‘A man in her room all night? So a leopard can change its spots,’ said someone in the dayroom to a ripple of general amusement, her social life evidently no secret here; but she had no time for such frivolities,
‘Inspector, where is he? What did he do?’
Good, she had remembered. He answered,
‘He left early this morning. I’ve put the alert out, people will be looking for him. As soon as I’ve got my legs back I will be too. The warm milk?’
‘I think it must have been. You know he’s washed everything up in there?’ she noted.
‘He’d left us each a glass of water too for when we woke,’ he said in equal disbelief.
‘What are you pair talking about?’ asked Ellie.
The Constable appeared at the door, ashen-faced.
‘What is it?’ asked his Inspector.
‘In private, sir?’
‘Ellie, you do a wonderful job, and I’m no going to keep you from it a moment longer. Look after Ludmila for me.’
Joining the Constable in the hallway, the man explained,
‘Sir, Derek Waldron isn’t in his room, doesn’t look like he’s been there all night. But he’s left this on his bed.’
Grey took the envelope from his hand, marked with his own name.
‘And sir, something’s happened at the Mars house. I’ve told them you’re here, and they sending a car for you right away. And sir.’
‘You might want to brush up…’
‘Thank you, yes.’
In the bathroom mirror of Rachel’s flat he smoothed down his hair and dried his face and neck; anything else would have to wait. He wasn’t wearing his suit jacket he suddenly discovered; and sure enough, found it folded neatly on the arm of the chair next to the one he had been passed out on.
‘Derek, what are you up to?’ he asked the room as he slipped the jacket back on, it instantly becoming the least disordered part of his otherwise slept-in apparel.
Rachel Sowton had followed him to her own door,
‘He’d taken your jacket off for you? He’d put my shoes at the foot of the bed. Your Constable’s doing a role call and room search, but no one’s noticed anything out of the ordinary this morning.’
‘That’s good. At least he didn’t drug the guard outside.’
‘It would have been easy though — this place is like a pharmacy, and he’d have seen what dose we use. Is he in trouble?’
‘I’ll know soon.’
‘Then let me know.’
‘I will,’ and with that he left to meet the squad car he saw from the window pulling up in the road outside.
Chapter 22 — Social Services
The interview room at the Social Services building was more like a coffee lounge, considered Cori as she entered with Janice (whose surname Cori would learn was Roper). Plush sofas, low table, pastel throws — Cori noted that no one piece of furniture directly faced another. There was however, between a toddler’s playpen and a pile of put-away toys, a small glass cabinet that she guessed contained recording equipment. She shuddered at the stories this room had heard.
‘Ah, here they are,’ said Janice, all smiles now the interview was happening, and all tension at the participant’s broader situation necessarily left at the door. Esther entered first: teenage, wary, smartly dressed and with black hair falling straight over her face beneath a polka dot bow. With her was her mother, Maisie, whose lighter and curlier hair made Cori wonder how much effort her daughter put into making hers so.
After greetings all around, Janice spoke both to those gathered but also to the room and it’s recorders, beginning with the date and time and listing those present, before continuing softly,
‘Now, Esther, you know that we’re here today to talk about your tutor, Stella Dunbar.’
‘She wasn’t just my tutor.’
‘Well, that’s what the Sergeant here will go away and investigate after our discussion. Specifically, we’re here to ask you about your meeting with her on Monday of this week.’
‘The night she was murdered.’
‘Yes, the night she was attacked. We’ll soon get on to that. I also know that the Sergeant is also very keen to learn all she can about Stella as a person; so first, Esther, to give us a perspective: you’d been seeing Stella twice a week after school since the previous term?’
‘And what was she like?’
‘She was nice. A bit serious at first, she wouldn’t let you laugh or mess around. “We’re not here to share jokes,” she’d say. I was a bit shocked, she wasn’t like our teachers. I didn’t think I’d go back.’
‘But you did?’
‘Because I knew Jeff and Louise would give me hell.’
‘Oh, Esther,’ answered her mother, ‘they’ve never given you hell. Don’t be so melodramatic.’
‘Oh, Mum, you know what I mean.’
Janice smiled at this, at evidence of a rebuilding of a relationship between mother and daughter.
Maisie turned to Cori, glad it seemed of anyone to make this point to,
‘Esther couldn’t have been luckier than having Janice find the Wheelwrights for her. After I… after the divorce when I couldn’t cope with looking after her alone, Janice took care of everything. She said, “We have a good family here in town, and I’ll find if they have a space”; and they had.’
‘So,’ Janice turned back to Esther, finding her thread, ‘Stella seemed very serious at first?’
‘Yeah, I thought I’d done something to upset her. It was like she was always about to tell me off. I wasn’t used to it, I don’t know anyone else like that. I was nervous and I started giggling, and I think she thought I didn’t care. She said, “Tutoring is a two-way street, young lady: If I’m to make the effort, they you need to too.”’
‘But she wasn’t always like this?’
‘No, she relaxed later on, once we started working and she could see I was trying.’
‘So, did your attitudes to Stella change?’
‘Yes, I began to like how she was. It’s hard to explain.’
‘Take as long as you need.’
‘It was like she respected me, that she took me seriously, took our lessons seriously. “You’ve only got one shot at this, Esther”, she’d say. “You don’t want to be having to retake your exams when your older and in work.”’
‘It sounds like you responded.’
‘I did. It was like,’ she girl took a moment to form her words, ‘I wouldn’t be letting her down by messing around, I’d be letting myself down, but that this would still make her disappointed for me.’
‘You believed she cared very deeply.’
‘Yes! And she cared about Stacie just as much, even though she wasn’t even her student at first, Stella was just lending her books.’
‘Different to your usual teachers?’
‘Yeah, they’d just be sarky, or give us books and not care if we read them; or try and be our friends, like we would ever want to talk to them.’
Her mother shook her head, ‘We’ve had problems with the school even from when I was still her guardian. The divorce took its toll on Esther. In that my ex-husband and I were very selfish.’
‘Oh, Mum, don’t say that. It wasn’t your fault.’
‘No, love, you were strong, but no one that age should have to be.’ Maisie turned her attention back to Cori, ‘It all took a toll on Maisie’s schoolwork, and she fell down into lower classes. Once stranded there it seemed the teachers couldn’t give a damn.’
‘It has been an issue with the school,’ concurred Janice. ‘Their rates of improvement for underachieving children have historically been very low.’
‘And how are you getting on at school now?’ Cori wasn’t sure if she was to ask Esther direct questions; but it was she who answered,
‘If anything I hate it even more, but I’m doing better there now. I still can’t stand the teachers though: I look at them like Stella looked at me,’ she gave Cori a Mount Rushmore face, ‘and they think I’m mad.’
‘Oh, Esther,’ said her mother attempting to gather her distain.
‘Thank you, Esther, that’s given us a great insight into the lessons you shared.’ Janice was clearly moving the narrative along. ‘But now if you can, could you tell us a little about that last day?’
‘Yes, that’s what we’re here for, that’s what I’ve got to tell you.’
‘Easy, girl,’ her mother chided, ‘All in good time.’
‘Now, Sergeant, you’ll want to ask Esther some question?’
‘Thank you. Hello, Esther. So, yes, could you tell us about your first visit to the Cedars that day?’
‘So you know I went back?’
Cori nodded, ‘You bumped into a resident on the stairs? He gave us a statement.’
‘Oh yeah,’ she said, as if genuinely only now remembering it.
‘But going back a bit, to that first visit…’
Yet Esther didn’t speak, instead she looked down, part-fearfully/part-shamefully it seemed to Cori,
‘Esther,’ Janice jumped in, ‘Something happen on that first visit, didn’t it?’
The girl remained in her defensive attitude, before reaching into the bag she had been clutching throughout, and taking out what looked like a crumpled letter.
‘What’s this?’ asked Cori as it was offered to her.
‘That’s what I found, when I went to my lesson that day. I’d knocked on the door but there was no answer, so I called her name from the hall…’
‘The door was open?’
‘Stella always left it ajar when she was expecting one of us. Anyway, she wasn’t ready yet which wasn’t like her. “Take a seat,” she said, “I’ll be in in a minute.” — she always made us a cup of tea. So I went to the table and she hadn’t put the books out yet, they were still in the pile with the others; and that was on the table.’
Cori read silently, the others evidently knowing the contents. The letter, dated only Friday, bore the crest of a London auction house, and began:
Dear Ms Dunbar,
It is always a pleasure to write to such a valued and longstanding customer, and we trust this letter finds you well. Our autumn silverware auction catalogue will be sent to you in July as usual, and we of course hope to see you again in the capital for the event this year.
However, in the meantime, a most intriguing matter has come to our attention that we must communicate to you. Some months ago we were contacted by a collector of the Canadian artist J. W. Barrow, requesting details of any of that artist’s works to have passed through our hands over the years. Relatively little has, in fact; though there is a record of us selling a piece, Bear Rearing at Hunters, to a Mr S and Mrs S Mars in Nineteen Seventy-two.
Communications to the address we had on file for the Mars’ were returned undelivered; before our longest-serving steward, Greaves, remembered that you had once been known to him by that name; and sure enough we found a copy of the original receipt for the sale of Bear… still pinned to your file.
It goes without saying that, short of confirming the fact of the sale, no further details of the buyer were revealed to the collector; and never would they be without first speaking to our customer themselves.
The collector is very keen to see the piece however, and furthermore has asked us to relay the fact that any indication that it may be put back on the market would prompt a more than generous offer.
Should you wish only to reaffirm your right to confidentiality, then this will of course be communicated to them. In the eventuality that you have since parted with the painting, that is of course a private matter between yourselves and the new owners, though the collector would be grateful if you could pass this invitation down the line.
It only remains for us to advise you, were you not already aware, that Barrow’s star has risen these past decades, and that any reasonable offer for Bear Rearing at Hunters would be likely to be in the tens of thousands of pounds. Needless to say, we would hope that you would employ us as agents for any sale.
We wait on your instruction.
The letter was signed by one of the partners of the auction house. This was what had been in the envelope found in Stella’s room; while the first letter the auction house sent must have been to the first home the Mars family shared before moving to Mansard Lane. Cori reread certain key passages, then looked up to the group.
‘A copy of the letter has been attached to the case file,’ said Janice to the microphones; as Esther started,
‘I didn’t mean to read it, I wasn’t being nosey.’
‘She knows you didn’t, Honey.’ Her mother put her hand over Esther’s.
‘It was the name of the picture, Bear Rearing at Hunters.’
Maisie comforted Esther as she explained,
‘My daughter knows that painting, Sergeant. We all do, any of us who survived that house. Patrick has it hanging over the fireplace. It’s his proudest possession.’
And still there now, Cori remembered from Ludmila’s more recent description.
‘The name of the picture just jumped out from the letter.’
‘She knows, Honey, she knows.’
‘What did you do, Esther?’ asked Cori.
‘Stella was out making us tea, so I grabbed the letter and dashed off, calling through that I was ill and I’d catch up next week. She called after me, asking what was wrong, but I had to get out. I went to the benches by the cedar trees, out of view of the flats, and sat and read it through. And realised.’
‘What did you realise, Esther?’
‘It didn’t come clearly at first, it was all a jumble. I tried to read it properly, slowly, as she taught me to do with books, to make sure I understood every line before moving onto the next one; but I couldn’t, my eyes were jumping over the page, I couldn’t get the sentences straight.’
Cori noticed Esther was suddenly shaking, her mother’s arm around her shoulders attempting to dampen the juddering movement.
‘Sergeant, it might be a good idea if we had a break,’ whispered Janice.
‘Of course, of course.’ Cori gladly acceded.
Chapter 23 — The Scene at the Mars House
The squad car tore past the point at which the unmarked car had been positioned the night before, and then around the corner into Mansard Lane, moving as fast as they dared without lights flashing and siren blaring.
‘We’re not under cover any more?’ asked Grey of the driver of the fully-marked car.
‘We’re well past that, sir,’ he answered, as Grey discovered as they found the Mars house with door flung open and emergency service vehicles all over the drive and on the verge out front. All around were uniformed staff in purposeful motion. How different from the stillness of the night before.
Grey was clocked the moment he got out of the car,
‘Ah, here he is, my opposite number, the man with the answers.’ Inspector Glass looked wired, weird. Grey didn’t relish dealing with him.
Gesturing for him to join him in the entrance hall, Grey approached to see another figure slumped in the shadows and being tended to by medics.
‘Do you know this man?’ asked Glass.
‘Yes, that’s Derek Waldron,’ answered Grey in shock.
Whether Waldron was genuinely semi-conscious or merely looking to the floor out of shame, Grey couldn’t say; but he looked a mess, blood over the same shirt and cardigan he had been wearing the previous night.
‘We need to have him in the ambulance soon,’ said a bright-coated medic.
‘You can keep him,’ spat Glass. ‘Have one of ours go with you though, we don’t want him getting way.’
Looking at the shape collapsed against the wall, Grey considered there was little risk of that.
Glass continued, ‘Yes, one of our men thought they recognised him from sentry duty at the Cedars. Is he one you interviewed?’
‘You were there last night, I hear.’
‘Yes.’ The answer was a painful one in ways Grey hadn’t even worked out yet.
‘Then I don’t suppose you can tell us what he was doing barging in here this morning, disrupting our whole operation and sending Mars scarpering?’ Glass spoke with barely contained disgust; Grey realising suddenly that Mars was nowhere around,
‘Scarpering? Where? How’d he get away?’
‘Come with me.’ Glass led through the body of the house, unconcerned for the effect of his boots on plush carpets, to emerge at a patio beyond the kitchen door. From there they could see a Constable obviously up a ladder, only his top half visible, calling over from the other side of the fence at the end of the garden,
‘He definitely came this way, sir. The side gate’s been pushed through and there’s drops of blood on the slabs.’
‘Look at that,’ said Glass turning away. ‘Look at the man we’ve loosed upon the public: injured from his attack, and he still managed to scale a seven-foot fence and break a gate down to get clean away.’
Glass led back through to the scene in the hall,
Another of his uniformed men, loving the excitement, held a transparent evidence bag containing a long and partially blooded screwdriver.
‘See this? This was your friend Derek’s weapon of choice when he sprung on Mars this morning. You’ll notice the blood. It isn’t his,’ Glass jabbed a dismissive finger downward at the figure being readied for removal. ‘None of his injuries fit, which means Chummy here got at least one blow in with this,’ he shook the evidence bag, ‘before Mars struck back to defend himself.’
Grey imagined the scuffle they must have had in this narrow hall, Waldron fortunate that Mars apparently hadn't wanted to hang around. He must have known he was being watched, perhaps had been up all night knowing it, just waiting for something as bizarre and unexpected as Derek Waldron armed and dangerous to come and trigger his growing urge to flee.
But Glass wasn’t finished,
‘Oh, and there’s the little matter of how our interloper here got into the house.’ Glass turned his gaze to the front door itself, where in it’s high old-fashioned lock remained a key, from which swung a keyfob in the shape of a stylised ‘L’ cast in silver metal and encrusted with ersatz rubies,
‘I wonder where that might have come from?’
Grey groaned inwardly — Waldron must have taken it last night from the bag of the sleeping Ludmila.
‘And that’s not all. Shall I take you to the garden shed where we’ve found a walking stick flung on the floor, covered in what the man who first found it thought was spilt creosote? Or to the utility room with a laundry basket full of a week’s worth of dirtied men’s clothes?’ The inference was obvious: had they taken a risk on bringing Mars in the previous evening, then they’d have found the evidence to charge him.
Glass, far from done with this, almost seemed to splutter, ‘Just what were you up last night? And where the hell were you this morning..?’
‘In here, the pair of you.’
Superintendent Rose, his arrival unnoticed, as good as pushed them into a downstairs room and slammed the door behind them,
‘Not in front of the troops. Never in front of the troops.’
‘Two senior officers bickering over a crime scene, as a victim’s taken away to an ambulance…’
‘Well, I’m not sure we can call Waldron that…’ Glass was attempting to defend himself like a bridled child, while Grey was still in a light form of shock.
Rose’s shook head said it all, ‘Now Glass, you tell me what happened.’
‘Well, all hell’s broken loose, that’s what happened. Some madman from the Cedars got hold of the house keys from the woman Grey was meant to be looking after, and came here to settle some score on Mars.’
‘He escaped over the garden fence, sir. He’s injured though, can’t be moving quickly. We’ve cars out looking for him.’
‘So, this man. Did he know Mars? Did he know where he lived?’
‘Ask Grey, he was at the Cedars last night.’
‘I had to put Ludmila Mars up somewhere.’
‘She had a hotel.’
‘She didn’t want it.’
‘You couldn’t find her another one?’
‘She wanted a guard.’
‘And how is she?’
‘Slept through everything.’
‘And what about this man?’
‘I swear, I told him nothing.’
‘Well,’ sniped Glass, ‘for someone who didn’t know we were here, he played it cool enough, strolling right past our men in their cars.’
‘Do you remember him leaving, Grey?’ asked Rose.
‘No, no; I was out cold.’
‘He was sleeping!’
‘I wasn’t sleeping, he drugged me.’
‘Slipped me a sedative I reckon, the Duty Manager too.’
‘To not be notice slipping away? To not be missed by the Manager at breakfast? To be absolutely sure he’d have time to do this?’
‘What about the Constable outside?’
‘He’s there to stop people getting in, not the residents leaving. Waldron told him he had an early start.’
Now it was Rose’s turn to take a moment out in confusion; but Glass just pushed this imagined advantage,
‘Rase here must have old him what was going on.’
The Superintendent spun on him, ‘You stop right there! If you’ve a case to make you make it at the station and in private, you hear?’
‘Well sir, please count on me doing just that.’
Rose’s head was still shaking, ‘Right now I’m not sure what to think about how any of you have behaved.’
‘Me?’ asked Glass incredulously. ‘What have I done?’
‘You can ask me that… after you let a suspect get away from under your nose, with men crawling all over him? And you’re laying down judgement on others?’
‘”But, sir” nothing.’
‘Then I would just like it put on record that I was in favour of bringing Mars in for questioning last night.’
‘Noted. That was my call, you all witnessed it. Lord, will you look at us here: what a mess. What state’s Mars in?’
‘He’ll be injured, bleeding; might have hurt himself more getting over the fence.’
‘Then a six foot-plus man in such a state is hardly inconspicuous. Get everyone out there and get him found.’
Glass left the room in as calm a manner as he had answered that last question, but Grey knew that inside he’d be seething. It had been the kind of meeting that you witnessed only rarely over the span of a career, and which you were lucky to get out of with everyone involved keeping their jobs. In this case the focus was obviously Glass’ anger, and Grey couldn’t see the fall-out of it meaning any less than a resignation: either Glass’ own, or his forcing someone else’s.
‘And what about you, Grey?’ asked Rose after he’d gone. ‘Are you fit?’
‘Good, because whatever’s gone on here we need you working it all out.’
‘But I couldn’t have guessed at this…’
‘It’s our job to guess, isn’t it? Isn’t that what Glass’ lot are always being told? To stick to pounding the beat and to leave the deducing to CID? Take a minute, then I need you out searching.’
Left alone in the room, Grey had his first proper look at any part of the Mars house: at the dark furniture Ludmila had mentioned; and above the unused fireplace a picture that, even had he not already heard of it, could not have failed to catch the attention.
In dark shades of grey and brown were rendered jagged mountains reaching up into the sky; and in front of them, so small you had to get up close to see, a bear, it’s fur almost black, up on its hind legs, its front claws outstretched. Beneath it were two men almost off their feet, one turning and scrambling away, as the other tried hopelessly in vain to get a round off from his shotgun before the raging beast was upon them.
What was the name painted in the bottom right hand corner: “ Bellow ”, “ Barrow ”? The inscription in the gilded frame read, “ Bear Rearing at Hunters ”.
Avoiding the crowded hall, he found a connecting door through to an equally austere dining room — where only one chair was not pushed neatly back beneath the table — and from there another door led through to the kitchen. This final room was generally spick and span: among the cups and cereal bowls in the sink were only three large plates, the same number of dirty knives and forks. It was an obvious deduction for Grey that the cleaners had been sent away these past three days; this was Mars back in bachelor-mode, keeping his cleaning to a minimum.
Chapter 24 — Social Services II
Professional disappointment didn’t even come into it, as Cori acknowledged they wouldn’t have the answers they needed from Esther today. The teenager was still a child, soft in the centre, not yet hardened by the world no matter the blows it appeared to be throwing her. So, sat in that comfortable, colourful room alone, Cori did what she was taught to do, and put herself in Esther’s situation that crucial afternoon.
What would Esther have spotted from the letter as she tried to read it? That the painting mentioned could only be the one in her father’s house; also that the names of the purchasers were Mars; and if she had ever been told that her grandfather’s name had been Samuel, then that ‘Mr S Mars’ was as likely as not him. The next deduction was the crucial one; and depending on how clearly Esther was thinking at the time and on how much her mind was able to admit to itself, she would have realised something somewhere between at the very least, that in having this letter in her flat meant that her tutor, Stella had something to do with her family; and at most, that Stella had somehow been, in a previous existence, nothing less than her grandfather’s wife, her father’s mother, her own grandmother.
Cori wondered whether those facts would all have been too much at once; not that deep down Esther wouldn’t have begun to realise them. But such speculation was all academic, for without anything on tape or any route of Esther’s discovery getting to Patrick Mars, then Cori and her fellow officers were in the same situation they had been in last night: that of fiercely believing Mars’ guilt, but having no way of proving that he knew where Stella was living to be able to go and attack her there.
She switched her phone back on, and felt it buzz at least five times. The briefest of calls to the station confirmed the bare bones of what had gone on elsewhere this morning, and had her up and looking for Janice. She would be able to tell Cori of the procedure now with regards to Esther’s interview, and whether it wouldn’t be worth her while instead heading back to the station. In the tiny kitchen at the centre, Cori found Janice with Maisie Night,
‘Better, thank you. She wanted some time alone.’
‘Drink?’ asked Janice.
‘No, that’s what I’ve come to ask you. There’s a lot going on back at the station, and if you don’t think there’s any prospect… then I might go back for a bit and help out?’
Janice looked similarly doubtful, ‘I don’t think we can ask Esther to go through that again today.’
Cori had guessed as much, but something held her back from leaving; Maisie finally asking her,
‘You’ll have figured it out then, Sergeant, what’s upset her?’
‘Did you know Stella yourself?’ she asked back.
‘I knew of her,’ answered Maisie. ‘I’d read her name on papers. Patrick hardly spoke of her.’
‘But he kept her things, didn’t he: the glassware?’
‘Yes, there were nice pieces in the house and I’d guessed they weren’t from his father. That house needed all the brightening up it could get. She collected silver too — I’d seen the receipts — though there was none of that there by my time. Maybe Samuel had sold it off?’
‘So did you know who Esther was referring to when she asked you if you knew a Stella Dunbar?’
‘No, it didn’t click, until I saw the letter later on. In fact I remembered, when Esther showed me the letter, that Patrick had told me the story of when they bought that awful bear painting.’
‘Oh, please tell.’
‘Well, the family had all gone to London on holiday, to stop with Samuel’s relatives; Patrick would only have been about five. And there was an auction on in town that Patrick’s mother had read about. Anyway, whatever it was they’d gone there for, what they ended up buying was the painting. You see Patrick had been walking around the hall with them viewing the lots, when he’d seen the picture and was captivated, couldn’t take his eyes off it, he said. So they bought it for him, and he said that when his mother made the winning bid and the hammer came down that he turned and hugged her. In fact, that might be one of the few times I caught him remembering her kindly.’
‘As I say, for the most part his family were a closed book: who knows what pain he felt there. But when our own marriage broke down: when he began to get controlling, and his anger really showed, then he would bring up his parents to punish me, saying, “My father always told me you couldn’t trust women, they let you down, aren’t loyal, and then they run out on you.”’
‘Maisie, you don’t have to go through this,’ began Janice, but the woman clearly needed the release,
‘He’d say, “My mother abandoned us, and now you’re abandoning me.”
‘”I’m not abandoning you, Patrick.” I’d say. “You’re pushing me away, you’re making my life unbearable.”’
‘What would cause his anger, Maisie?’ asked Cori.
‘Almost anything by the end. He used to get these wild fantasies when I went out, that I was having an affair, that I was leaving him. And heaven forbid if I ever met any male friends. In the end I was scared to leave the house for how he’d be when I returned.’
‘You never met his father, Samuel?’
‘No, he died when Patrick was Seventeen. I think he was older than Stella, had fought in the War: the North Atlantic, Patrick told me. He had a book of great campaigns with markers for the pages his father’s ships appeared on.’
‘Sounds like he was proud of his dad.’
‘God, he idolised him.’
‘And how did you think of him?’
‘He always sounded a bully. God knows how he explained it to Patrick, but one day the boy woke up and his mother had been sent out of her own home.’
‘We see it a lot after a painful separation,’ added Janice. ‘One parent can demonise the other, make them sound worse than they were to justify their own actions.’
‘And the end of your time in the house?’ asked Cori?
‘The last time… the last time he simply lost control, slipped into some kind of wild state, called me every name under the sun in front of the children before just bursting into tears in front of me, screaming, “Get out, all of you, just get out!” I wouldn’t let my kids in with him again after that: I took them out the door that minute, and he’s never asked to see them again.’
‘I think he honestly thought they’d grow up to “betray” him: just like his mother did, like I did; or so be thinks.’
Even as Cori wondered how much turmoil one family could bear, there was a fly buzzing in her ear; and then she found it and swatted it,
‘You said “children” back there?’
‘Yes, Peter and Esther. Peter’s my eldest. I’m sorry, you didn’t know?’
Cori tilted her head back, as if to ask: and are there any other relatives Patrick didn’t tell us he had?
Maisie continued, ‘Of course you wouldn’t know, he’s not here at the moment. I’m afraid he never really settled anywhere after we moved; he’s with the Navy Cadets now, somewhere on the Channel. It’s the best thing for him, the active life. It helps him get things out of his system.’
It didn’t help his father or grandfather, thought Cori.
‘And is he still in touch with you, with Esther?’
‘Yes, he calls us often. I fact he was the first one Esther called that evening, she told me, asking if he knew who Stella was.’
‘And did he?’
‘No, that’s why she came running to find me.’
‘And what time did she call him?’
‘Oh, earlier, before she caught the coach.’
‘Before she went back to the Cedars on the night?’
‘I… really don’t know.’
Janice gave Cori a warning look, both knowing this was no place for such an interrogation, but she only had one question left and couldn’t leave without knowing the answer,
‘Maisie, is Peter still in touch with Patrick?’
‘Not that I know of.’
Cori struggled for the right words, ‘But is it possible that in such a situation as this, after hearing his sister so upset, he might call his father directly to ask for answers where Esther might be wary of doing so?’
‘It’s possible. He’s headstrong is my Peter, but honest with it. Don’t tar him with his family’s brush. He may be a Mars, but not all their men are devils.’
‘He kept his father’s name?’
‘As I say, he was never really a part of Esther and I’s project to start a new life: he was already keen to do his own thing. I think he feels the burden of his family’s history as much as anyone… Love! How long have you been standing there? You shouldn’t be listening to this.’
The women all turned to see Esther in the hallway, easily in earshot.
‘There’s something I need to tell you, Sergeant. It’s important.’
Janice, duty-bound, intervened; but like her mother Esther would not be held back,
‘Sergeant, when I went back that evening, there was someone else there.’
Cori wanted to speak, but the girl continued before she could get a word out,
‘You need to know this, to catch him. After I read the letter I knew I had to go back to Stella to ask her: ask her how she had been Mrs Mars, how she had bought the painting. I couldn’t ask anyone else, I had to ask her. So I went back. It was dark by then, I’d spent hours thinking about what to do.’
Maisie rushed up to Esther and held her, smoothing her hair as she did so,
‘You don’t have to say any of this now.’
‘No, Mum. I want to. The stairway was empty — I think everyone was watching TV — so I went up, and walked along to her door, but…’
‘Yes?’ asked Cori, curiosity getting the better of her.
‘Well, I’d never been there at night and it scared me, those plants at the end of the corridor, their shadows. And… there was someone in them, in the shadow, standing there… I couldn’t go any nearer. I didn’t go to her room, I turned around and ran off. I left her there; I left her there to be killed.’
Maisie clutched her daughter hard as she dissolved into tears; Cori intoning,
‘I must find the Inspector, I must relay this to him.’
Janice darted up close to the Sergeant, a fellow professional issuing their opinion in compassionate whispers,
‘The state Esther was in that night we can’t say what she saw. That statement we just heard wouldn’t stand in court.’
Cori placed a hand on Janice’s shoulder, ‘I sincerely hope she doesn’t have to be within a hundred miles of the place.’
‘Have you ever heard a story like it, Sergeant? And I don’t think either mother or daughter have begun to fully accept what this all leads to.’
These were Janice’s last words to Cori, and stayed with her as she left the Social Services building, Cori remembering that Ludmila Mars had been coming to that same realisation as Maisie the night before, the realisation of their having married a man who could strangle his own mother to death.
Her most urgent port of call was the Cedars, where amid the busyness of a morning’s routine Rachel Sowton seemed more detached than usual. Had Cori not heard from the station of what had happened here last night, she may have put the Duty Manager’s mood down to recent events catching up with her, maybe even a touch of shock. Even so such disconnectedness was a bad sign, the starting point for all manner of coping strategies that would lead her only to further isolation: drinking, prescription drugs, pessimistic thoughts.
‘Sergeant,’ the woman looked up from the duties she was performing automatically. ‘You’ve news on Derek?’ (She had already been told of the fracas at the Mars house.)
‘Sorry, no. I haven’t been back to the station. He’ll be at the hospital by now.’
‘Yes, I must call them.’
‘Look, do you have five minutes?’
At the top of the stairs, Rachel flicked the switch light as requested. Cori walked along the windowed corridor she had only seen in daylight, looking up to the bulbs above her head, their glow barely visible in the morning sun. Outside the first flat she came to and then outside Stella’s each bulb glowed like a golden chrysalis, throbbing in her light-adjusted eye and leaving coloured splodges; but outside the third flat, the one guarded by foliage, the bulb was a lifeless iris, dust-peppered and silver-grey.
‘Did you know this end bulb was out?’ called Cori.
‘It has been for months, but then there’s been no reason to change it.’
‘Thank you for your help. You can switch them off now.’
‘I’ll go and make that call.’
Only Stella and one other tenant had used this stretch of corridor in recent months, Cori realised as she stood there alone, and so would have grown used to the odd sight of creepers and leaves casting shadows across that far end at night. She walked into the botanical zone, brushing greenery aside and being careful not to tread on a frond or the long thin creepers that came off the cheeseplants.
For no good reason she tried again the flat door there that she knew to be locked, and looked through the frosted glass to see the interior that she couldn’t quite make out. She turned back to face along the corridor, her view half obscured, and thought of what it might be like here at night. She realised that someone with the required patience could have stayed half-hid here for hours, Stella and the other tenant probably not even casting a glance this way to catch a shadowed face in the moonlight.
Standing there Cori shivered, feeling something running through her as she inhabited the space that she now guessed had been occupied on Monday night by the killer. Not moving her feet, she looked down and all around for any sign, a clue, confirmation that Esther had not been imagining things. As she stood there the stem of a leaf brushed the back of her left hand, and without thinking she took it, her fingers running up and down its tactile fibres; unthinking, that was, until she felt a deep gouge interrupting the natural pattern. She looked at what she was holding and saw in the stem a series of deep indentations the shape of large fingernails, pushed in repeatedly and carving out little canoe-shaped gullies around which the fibres had since turned brown.
Her mind turned suddenly to Mars in interview, his gardener’s nails dirtied underneath. Still standing in the same spot, as if to move would be to lose her inspiration, she called the station and from there asked to be put through to the Coroner’s Office; and there to the doctor conducting the autopsy, who answered,
‘Ah, hello Sergeant. Your report is being written now.’ (These things were never ready as quickly as in the TV shows.)
‘Thank you, but I just needed to know one little thing. I’m not sure how to put this, but around the wound on Stella’s neck, was there anything green?’
‘Plant matter? Yes, the tiniest traces: on the bruised skin and in the cuts caused by the nails.’
God these people were good, she thought,
‘And is it possible to match that if I gave you the actual plant?’
‘Chlorophyll’s very similar plant to plant, but there might be something in the actual fibres. We can have a look for you.’
Forensics would already have checked the corridor outside Stella’s flat of course, but wouldn’t have thought of needing samples of the plants. Someone would be with her within the half-hour. Cori only had to pray Patrick Mars hadn’t scrubbed his nails in the meantime.
Chapter 25 — A Letter from Derek
It was only after both Glass and Rose were gone, after strolling through the rooms of the Mars house to gather his thoughts, that Grey remembered that the letter left by Derek Waldron was still in his pocket, he not having had a chance to open it in that morning’s rush. He tore the envelope quickly and read a well-presented hand-written letter of the sort you rarely saw any more. It began,
Apologies first of all for drugging you. As I write at Rachel’s table you sleep soundly feet away. I trust the effects will have worn off by morning, by which time I may not be here to explain myself; hence why I write now.
I have to do it, you appreciate that. What that man has done is not for the law to have him answer to, it’s for Stella’s friend, Charlie’s friend, to put right (though I feel an unlikely avenger).
You were their friend too, their last friend, the one who got to know them best. You’ve learnt about their being on the Council (I noticed your slip just now, though Rachel didn’t pick up on it) and you also found Stella’s lost family, and the mad-headed son.
Perhaps I ought to have written “damaged” son, for isn’t that how we look at them now, criminals, murderers, as being victims themselves? Yet it doesn’t seem to help us, does it? Doesn’t bring down the crime rate, doesn’t help us reach these broken souls before they hurt our friends. But I digress…
A bit of slight of hand that earlier, if you don’t mind my saying: your asking Rachel to put up the wife of her friends’ killer; but seeing her here and your telling us she couldn’t go home confirmed my intent. You see, I quite quickly made three — I hope — fairly reasonable deductions: one, that the lady you brought here tonight was escaping a man; two, that for the Inspector himself to be worrying about her wellbeing in the middle of a murder case meant that that man was somehow involved; and three, that if she couldn’t go home then the man was still at their house.
I’m afraid what other facts I possess are gleaned through base theft and eavesdropping. You see I’ve been listening in to the radios of the men and women who’ve been posted here these recent days: to their instructions, directions, place names, road names. What can I say? I have a genuine curiosity. I heard an hour ago, standing with tonight’s Constable as I took him a drink, that there were officers at Mansard Lane. All I needed then was the house number, and that I have just found on letters and bills in Ludmila’s bag.
I found something else too: Ludmila’s surname — Mars — and from somewhere in another life I remembered it as Stella’s. This oddly seals things, confirms my deductions, and makes Stella’s killer her son? Another deduction, but he can only be. This makes my task no easier.
Not that I can go back from this point — I dread to think what crime I’ve committed doing what I have to an officer on duty. Had I not found the address in Ludmila’s bag I suppose I would be out now listening for your panda cars or watching the streets for activity; but as it is I know precisely where I must go, and so have time to try and write this properly.
And so I sit here writing this, unable to sleep but neither able to move yet: I can’t do anything until it’s light and there’re people on the pavements. I cannot say my plan will succeed, but know it won’t require much luck to do so. It will only take as long as watching for the house number, skipping up his drive, letting myself in, and getting one lucky blow before your watchers have me pinned or he gets one lucky counter-blow.
(You’ll have noticed another confession there: yes, I have Ludmila’s keys. I didn’t even need to slip her a Mickey Finn from Rachel’s cabinet, she was already spark out.)
Does he rise early, the man? I’ve no way of knowing. If not then I’ll have to rush to find him in bed before your men are upon me, not that he deserves to die in such comfort. Once he is dead then there will be a kind of closure about it all, a finality, an arc played out among the heavens and returned to earth to meet it’s concluding point. The saga of Dunbar, Prove and Mars will be over, the three of them dead, none left to kill or be killed. I may not manage it of course, and may be done for myself, but I am incidental to the story, a minor figure not worthy of remembrance.
The letter went on this tone, its morbid reflection all manna for the soul undoubtedly, but Grey needed details.
What poor Charlie has to do with it I don’t know, but then there is so much I don’t. Please don’t think the rest of this letter is the answer to your case; though I know I should explain one more thing: You can’t have missed that I alluded back there to having known Stella before she came to the Cedars, back when her name was Mars. You’ll also recall that I haven’t mentioned this fact in our discussions up to now.
Yes, I did know her very vaguely and many years ago; no, I didn’t tell you and I’m not sure why now; and no, I know of nothing that had happened to her in-between; except that when I knew her once she was married and vivacious, and when I knew her again she was neither. She came to the Cedars single, her past undiscussed, and her vitality replaced with a stoicism that even I at times struggled to admire. She had also quite forgotten me.
… I return to my letter after ten minutes spent silent at the table, you breathing peacefully nearby and asking me the question I’d yet to answer for myself: why hadn’t I told you of the past? The answer came in the form of another question: Can you keep a secret so long that you forget that you are holding it, forget what you actually know? That day in the Eighties when she pitched up at the next-door flat I nearly fell over my front doorstep, yet she gave me no more a look than to suggest I help her with the boxes she was carrying. After an hour I invited her into my flat for tea, where she asked me my name, who I was, what I did? I soon learnt she wouldn’t broach such questions asked of herself, also that I was already couching my answers in such a way as to not give away that we’d any common ground. Central to these thoughts, cemented in place by the end of that first day, was the casually devastating realisation that she had evidently played a larger role in my earlier life than I had ever played in hers.
Dunbar, Prove and Mars. They sound like a firm of solicitors. Oddly I mourn none of them, regret none of their ends. You find that strange? The only sadness is the children Stella won’t now help, won’t find the potential of when their teachers are too busy and the Head too wrapped up in Government reports. That school has been a bad one for years, and there’s not one person in town that doesn’t know it. She was the only one not prepared to let a certain number of children slip through her fingers as a bad lot, unhelpable, or be thought to be doing well enough to not to have worry if they couldn’t do even better. I know little enough of these matters bar what Stella taught me: and that is that education is about care, about constant vigilance, about not letting today’s relentless focusing on exam averages and league tables take our eyes for one moment from the children in our stewardship, lest a single one of them slip between the floorboards. It is a brave soul who’ll raise a child in Britain today.
She wasn’t a happy woman, but she did good, she made others happier, and all after having her own life harmed in ways I only guess at. What those in life who find the first excuse to absolve themselves of their own bad behaviours could learn from this woman, who lost whatever inner joy gave her her spark, and yet could still think of others. Perhaps the fact of the hardness she adopted to deal with life made it easier to be cruel to be kind, to push the kids, to demand results no matter how unpopular it might make her. Someone who valued others’ opinion of themselves might step back from making themselves so unloved… I wonder if I’ve ever written a sadder sentence?
You’ll notice I’m drifting into supposition there, for I do not know her story, only piecing the little I do know together. But then look at my immediate situation: I am alone after midnight at a table in the flat of a woman lying drugged in the next room, the Inspector of police in a similar state not ten feet away. I am drinking not enough to get drunk but only to hold my nerve as I contemplate what lies ahead. As such my mental waters are hardly likely to be placid. There is a school of thought suggesting that so repressed is the English gentleman that only when his very life is in danger is he allowed to show emotion. Is that why I now leave to face a murderer, because I need the release?
For those facts that you confirmed to me, I thank you, but it it’s for me to finish this. I failed twice in my duty to protect my friends; now I must put myself at risk if that is what’s required to put that right. And do not feel guilty yourself, Inspector, for remember I have found out for myself where this man lives. You have given nothing away.
Thank you for your help, thank you for being their final friend.
Grey sat back after digesting that epic, not sure what it told him, only glad that Derek’s plan didn’t seem to have been fulfilled. He had missed his injured correspondent leave in the ambulance, but walked out of the house and caught a medic packing up his fluorescent Volvo,
‘The man you were treating, what were his injuries?’
‘Nothing major, just generally roughed up. He was very disoriented though, and given his age we have to be careful.’
‘”Very disoriented”, thought Grey. Yet his direction of travel had seemed certain enough the night before.
The next half-an-hour was not pleasurable. Cori not available to travel with, he found a space in the backseat of one of the patrol cars scouring the streets for Patrick Mars. This also kept him out of the way of senior officers judging his conduct; although the others in the car were Glass’ people, and would have heard, or heard of, Glass’ broadside in the hall. At least being junior to him, and they being occupied with the search, left him free from criticism for a while.
Not that he wasn’t beating up himself. That he had messed up was obvious, but he hadn’t yet worked out precisely how. There were specific decisions made: taking Ludmila out of the hotel, for one; but she and the other residents of the Cedars had been safest of all last night. What else? Not backing Glass in taking the risk on arresting Mars last evening: that had been a big call; but he would make the same decision again, as not even Glass could not have believed how careless Mars would be in leaving evidence scattered around the house. There was a logical flaw, and that was in not deducing Derek Waldron’s part in all this. Yet who could have predicted how he’d act?
He cursed Superintendent Rose too, for butting into the argument in the hallway before he could issue any defence, and so leave the impression with Glass either that he had no defence or that he needed his boss to defend him. But most of all he hated Glass, who’d singularly messed up his operation and then blamed him for everything.
The half hour was only relieved by a call from Cori, relating the stellar batch of facts: those of Esther finding the letter; of her having a brother, Peter; of her calling him that night and how he might then have called their father.
‘And I think Mars hid in the plants at the end of the corridor,’ she had concluded, ‘That’s how nobody saw him when they went to their rooms at ten o’clock.’
In the backseat of the squad car he by turns lamented his lot and mulled the case over, as Rose requested he do. Up front the radio crackled: Mars was on the Hills estates.
Chapter 26 — Emergency
At the centre of the Hills was a shopping and services precinct build at the same time as the houses and flats around it, and intended as a focal hub. Like many an environment created one-off from a plan (rather than grown up organically like most town centres before the Twentieth Century) there were parts that didn’t work, corners shunned by shoppers, other areas a haven for kids and not easily policeable; there were paved paths unused and grass spaces with diagonal dirt tracks running across them.
At the centre of area was ‘the Shops’, as the locals could only bring themselves to call it: a large square building, the bottom layer of which were storefronts, and above these two further floors windowless from the front and which displayed instead murals of the sort designed by Left-leaning community visionaries in the Seventies and Eighties — here a diverse mix of smiling faces; beside it a huge tree acting as metaphor for — simultaneously — the roots of history and the branches of society.
Behind these large pictures were the first-floor storerooms for the shops below them, as well as half-hidden offices for local firms and the cooperative that managed the centre. From past visits to the interior, Grey remembered the open centre of the building on the upper floors and how it brought in more light than you’d imagine, the varying uses that the different spaces above the shops were put to, and the stairs and corridors which linked these spaces; and which if you knew your way, could bring you out onto the roof above the artwork the equivalent of three floors up.
Inspector Glass was already there of course, approaching Grey as he stepped out of the car,
‘You know, when they painted that picture of the faces they missed a lot of people out.’
‘Who do you mean?’ said Grey, scanning the huge mural afresh for something he had missed. He checked the beaming visages, ‘Every nationality imaginable is represented.’
‘But look, every one of them is smiling — what about all the bloody miserable people who have to shop here?’
Grey imagined this was intended as a joke, and so meant Glass was trying to build bridges. Maybe not, but either way Grey was allowed to stay at a scene that, as a purely public-safety episode, was uniform’s domain.
Facing the building’s front was an area of paving, benches and knee-high concrete bowls containing seasonally-replenished flowerbeds. In the ten minutes or so since the alert was raised, within this space had formed a crowd. From his position by the hastily parked squad cars lined behind this open space, Grey scanned the people. He imagine most of them were those already nearby shopping, socialising, drinking coffee or doing whatever among the cluster of shops; or else on their way to or back from the various public amenities nearby: Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Connexions youth unemployment service, the Safe amp; Sound elderly housing maintenance office, SureStart’s nursery service for working mothers, or the town’s two-storey JobCentre Plus next door. These numbers were quickly swelled as word got to those living nearby — for houses and flats directly overlooked the precinct.
Even as the officers stood there more people arrived, and soon there were upwards of two-hundred in that unevenly paved area with the wafting trees either side. To half-hearted efforts at calling the crowd back there was little attention given, the people eager to see what was happening. There was a general sense of no one actually knowing what was going on, only an excitement that something might be occurring, as those who had seen what had actually happened were lost in the crowd. This expectation and uncertainty were shared by the officers, who sometimes paused from issuing orders to look up at the large building themselves.
Grey shared this sense of being witness to something. The day was sunny and this lent the area’s brickwork a joyous redness, the slabs a dusty, careworn feel. This, along with the animation of the people’s faces brought Grey some residual cheer even as he contemplated the nightmare now unfolding on the roof; for it was up there, to the roofline above the murals, that people’s eyes were now training on, though none quite sure what they were seeing… and then they saw it clear.
Accompanied by gasps from the crowd, like a public concert where the signer had just fallen from the stage, above the area of wall bearing the Community Tree mural appeared the bobbing heads of a man Grey saw to be Mars and of a shopkeeper many of the crowd would have known. Suddenly the heads were gone again, behind what was evidently a chest-high rim of brick running around the edge of the roof.
Just as suddenly the men appeared again, the shopkeeper appearing to lunge at Mars, and then run along the edge of the roof behind the wall, before disappearing into the doorway just visible from the ground. He did this to whoops and cheers; which turned to shrieks and moans as there was suddenly a loud bang, the glass door shattering as he closed behind the fleeing man. Mars, like the hunter in his beloved painting, then turned his gaze and the barrel of what suddenly revealed itself as a shotgun at what he saw as his enemy. However, where the painted gunman had been aiming his gun upwards into the body of the bear about to shred him with his foreclaws, here Mars ranged it downward over the parapet formed by the wall.
The fact of having a gun pointed at them did the job of a hundred officer’s calls to move back, as all at once the gathered throng turned to flee from the building like charged filings from a upturned magnet. What they found though was street furniture and police cars in their way, as they fell over these, scrambled past them and into spaces that weren’t there. Others to the sides of the crowd had clearer escape routes, or found cover around corners.
The uniformed division had been arriving by the minute, some of them on shift forty-eight hours of the last seventy-two guarding murder scenes, searching for Ludmila Mars, watching Mansard Lane and then this morning employed on the scene at the Mars house. Now they quickly gathered the crowd, easing panic and moving them to what all hoped was a safe distance back.
‘Where’d he get that?’ asked one of them of Mars’ gun; which like the man holding it had now thankfully (though worryingly) disappeared from view.
‘Probably something his security “boys” keep back for an emergency,’ said Glass, striding through the carnage like a military General.
But a Town Host, one of the staff who kept things civil in the vicinity though without the authority of an actual police officer, gave the lie to that; running over to the cordon from the shops that had already begun to board their windows and shut up. (The gunman being on their own roof left the shopkeepers with a dilemma, some running out to be with the crowd, other locking themselves into their own spaces, despite him being within the greater building.)
The Town Host had her purple-jacketed arm around the shoulders of a crying woman.
‘This is the man on the roof’s wife,’ the Town Host said when reaching the line of squad cars.
‘The man came into our shop,’ said the wife shakily. ‘He said hello and asked for cigarettes, and then when my husband turned his back he reached under the counter and took the gun.’
‘It’s your gun?’ asked Glass.
‘We need it, for protection. I heard the shot. Is he..?’
‘I’m sure he’s fine. We’ll have people up there in a flash to get him down.’
Though not sure he had any authority here Grey spoke the woman,
‘Hello, I’m a Detective Inspector,’ he began conscious of his plain clothes among uniforms. ‘It sounds as if Patrick Mars knew the gun was there?’
‘Yes, he’d seen it before.’
The Town Host took over, ‘Mars Protection ran a pilot scheme here two years ago, taking over security of the precinct.’
‘How did it go?’
‘It was abandoned,’ remembered Glass, ‘after a lad got badly beaten up.’
‘But he knows the building?’
‘Inside out. They used one of the upstairs offices.’
At that point a glass door snug between shopfronts opened and a group of office workers ran out, running wildly for the nearest cover.
‘Hey, hey! Over here!’ called Glass, they casting their eyes warily roofward as they changed direction.
‘You were working upstairs?’ he asked them once crouched behind parked cars.
‘Did you see the man shot?’
Again they could only nod.
‘Well?’ asked Glass.
They were in shock, Grey observed watching the conversation. They weren’t built to see this kind of thing at work.
One spoke, as unsteadily as the shopkeeper’s wife currently being comforted further back from the line, he saying,
‘The one with the gun led the other one up there, right past our office.’
‘You saw him shot?’
‘He’s up there bleeding, he’s all right though, he’s pulled himself through a doorframe into one of the rooms. We couldn’t get close enough to get him down.’
‘And did you see Mars’ face? How does he look?’
‘He’s the security guy, isn’t he?’ asked the office worker.
‘Yes he worked here a while back. Could you see him?’
‘Yes, along the corridor and through the smashed door. He was lying flat out on the roof. He’d thrown the gun to his side, which was why we risked clearing out.’
‘Was he injured?’
‘Maybe, but not badly. It looked like he was just lying in the sun up there.’
‘He’s mad,’ said Glass as he turned to Grey; before throwing him with his next question, ‘So what would you do if you were me?’
Grey took it at face value,
‘Call in Armed Response…’
‘Except we’re thirty minutes’ drive from the nearest unit.’
‘…or decide the public need is too urgent, and go in now.’
‘Then on my head be it. Right then,’ said Glass turning back to the just-arrived office workers. ‘Which of you is brave enough to don a bulletproof vest and take us back up there?’
Grey was given a vest too, it going over his shirt and tie to replace his suit jacket and leaving him looking, he thought, like one of those urban teachers or social workers he had seen in a terrifying televised documentary about US crime. The reason for his being included in the party was obvious and unspoken: that he had been the last of them to speak to Mars.
Quickly, the six of them moved across the now-empty courtyard to the door to the upstairs offices. They did this to cheers from the nervous audience, Grey hoping this wouldn’t rouse Mars; who he was hoping from the description of him lying on his back in the sun was either injured from the Waldron attack at his home earlier, or in some kind of post-violence fugue state.
Guided by the terrified worker, who would fall back as soon as possible, there was Grey, Glass and three of the latter’s best people, all five of the officers with pistols issued from the station armoury. Grey had had the firearms training too, but accepted the offer of a gun for himself only grudgingly. To not have done so would’ve been cowardice, for were the need to arise he would want Mars shot as much as the next man, and wouldn’t want this duty to have to be borne by one the others up there.
Through clean though ageing passageways and doors they were soon on the first floor, and surrounded by open space, light and lots of glass in white wooden frames. By now every one of the little offices had been emptied of life, the doors flapping in the breeze from the windows opened on such a bright day. In one room a coffee mug still sat on a table beside posters for public events, in another monitor screens buzzed or had switched onto screensavers. Another staircase led them to the top floor, the office worker holding them back at the top,
‘You turn here and you’re in the corridor.’
‘Mars will see us from there?’ whispered Glass.
‘Where’s the injured man?’
‘Two… no, three doors along on your left.’
Glass gestured for one of his staff, the Sergeant who Grey had been in the car with and who had driven he and Ludmila to the Cedars the night before, to poke his nose around the corner,
‘I can see Mars, sir,’ he reported, ‘through the smashed door at the end.’
‘What’s he doing?’ asked Glass.
‘Flat out on his back. He’s about twenty yards away, direct line of sight.’
‘Where’s his gun?’
‘Can you see the injured man?’
‘No, but I can see the blood on the doorframe nearest the end.’
‘Damn, if only been able to drag himself closer…’
‘How many doors?’ he asked the Sergeant now safely returned.
‘Three on the left, one on the right.’
‘Are all the doors along here unlocked?’ Glass asked the lone civilian.
‘Yes, this corridor’s all ours, none of them would be locked.’
‘Good, then you get downstairs now, keep yourself hidden; but don’t go outside as you’ll be back in his line of fire.’
‘Plus, the crowd will get agitated if they see movement,’ added Grey.
To pats on the back, the man was free to scuttle down the corridor to find a hidden corner of a first-floor room. The remaining five were all within a few feet of each other, crouched at the top of the stairs and talking in whispers thus far; but after Glass gave them simple instructions of which room to each head for, he whispered finally into his radio, ‘Moving into position to engage,’ before putting his finger to his mouth and gesturing them to rise.
As one they bolted around the corner, there was only momentary confusion as Glass and one other ran to the only door on the right-hand side, Grey and the other two to the second door along the left. Having gotten this far unseen, the Sergeant — a first aider and keen to find the wounded shopkeeper — risked running to the furthest door on the left, the one with the bloodstains, broken glass from the smashed end-door kicking up underfoot as he darted in and lodged himself inside the doorframe.
Seeing him do this, Natasha, who Grey had spent an hour in the unmarked car at the end of Mansard Lane with the night before, and who was another charged with a first aid kit, risked the same; yet from his vantage point peeking around his doorframe Grey saw in gruesome slow motion as Mars, alerted to their presence by the sound of glass beneath the Sergeant’s boots, in one movement pulled himself half-up from his somnambulant state and swung the shotgun that had been resting hidden along his right side up and over himself to fire a second round through the already shattered end-door. Distracted by his movement, Natasha slipped on the blood and glass on the floor and fell into the room catching the doorframe in her midriff, leaving her legs hopelessly exposed in the corridor.
Unable to shoot with her blocking the corridor ahead of him, from across the corridor Grey had seen the pain in Glass’ expression as he first yelled at her impotently to get down; then to everyone to get back as a roar of shotgun pellets ripped the walls of the narrow passageway and splintered the doorframes they were each hiding inches behind.
Again Grey heard the wails from the crowd some distance away, even as the glass from the door and inner-windows above him continued to fall and smash all over and around. Moving carefully between shards and razor-sharp fallen metal blinds, Grey got himself back in position to see the damage done to the corridor.
The youngest of the group had already burst back out into the corridor and fired off three wild rounds in Mars’ direction.
‘Hold your fire, hold your fire,’ called Glass. ‘You want to kill us all?’
‘Permission to go out there and finish him, sir,’ asked the lad aquiver with anger and adrenalin.
‘Not if he’s down, son.’
And he was, the energy of rousing himself for that impossibly effective second blast seeming to leave Mars knocked out even colder.
The Sergeant in the room at the corridor’s far end had pulled Natasha in with him,
‘Shotgun wounds to the legs, sir. Flesh wounds.’
‘Looks like glass in his back and legs, sir. Both need ambulances.’
‘This has gone on long enough,’ said Glass, as Grey saw him stand up and march right out past the damage and through the smashed end-door to approach Mars, pistol in hand and pointed at the prone man’s face,
‘One move from you and you’re dead. Now throw the shotgun away.’
But there was nothing more to come, Grey already standing openly in the corridor with the agitated young Constable,
‘You’re hit, sir.’
‘What?’ Grey felt his collar was wet, and drawing his hand back saw it thick with blood. But there was no pain, at least not yet,
‘Must be a cut from the glass. Don’t worry.’
‘All clear, call the ambulances.’ Shouted Glass coming back inside. ‘And get a third, he’s bad out there. You, cuff him,’ he said to the Constable, who instantly dashed out to oblige. ‘And if you wanted your confession,’ he said to Grey, ‘then get it while you can. You injured?’
But Grey didn’t need to answer, passing him in the doorway just in time to see Glass enter the bloodied end-room and hear his words to his fallen colleague,
‘You hold in there, love. You’ll get a medal for this.’
Chapter 27 — Rooftop Soliloquy
‘That’s an ugly weapon,’ said the young Constable still coming down after the nerves of the raid. He was stood next to Grey above the motionless and handcuffed Patrick Mars, looking to the shotgun kicked four yards away across the flat roof. ‘What were they doing with that in a shop? I mean, I could just about understand a baseball bat.’
‘Oh, you see these weapons turn up in amnesties, things you wouldn’t believe.’
The building had been flooded with reinforcements after the all-clear had been sounded, and the crowd able to mingle freely again by the shops and discuss what had just happened to them, ‘Did you see it? I could have been shot!’
Paramedics were on site and ambulances waiting on the road, though they were making sure Mars got treated last.
‘Where’s the doctor?’ he called from the ground.
‘Treating the female officer you shot,’ spat back the Constable, with anger Grey wasn’t going to reprimand.
‘Well, you shouldn’t have women on the front-line then.’
‘There wouldn’t be a front-line if…’
Grey stepped in, ‘Why don’t you try and find us both a cup of coffee?’
‘Okay, but if he tries to move, sir, shoot him.’
‘Don’t worry, I will.’
Grey was left alone standing over Mars,
‘He’s got a point though, there was no point hurting her, or the shopkeeper.’
‘You’re trying to moralise me? Don’t you think I’m a little past that?’ he asked groggily.
The man’s speaking was strained, and Grey wondered if he was really injured? After all, Derek’s screwdriver had gone in somewhere. Yet he could only see cuts and bruises, he couldn’t be any worse than his victims, and an extra paramedic would be found for him anytime now.
‘And that’s all your going to ask me?’
‘What would you have me ask you then, Patrick?’
‘Why I did it.’
‘Oh, I think we know most of it.’
‘You’ve been busy.’
‘I think you received a call from your son Peter, away in the Navy Cadets, something along the lines of, “Esther’s found some woman who was married to Granddad, who bought your painting of the bear…”’
The man’s face collapsed as he repeated his son’s words to him,
‘“She’s Esther’s tutor, lives at that old people’s place in town, by the trees.” Esther’d told him everything. Of course I knew where he meant.’
‘Peter must have trusted you, to call you.’
‘No, he just knew I’d be the only one who could confirm it. He’d already abandoned me, like the rest of them. The women I expected nothing less from, but him, I always hoped he’d come around in time.’
‘He followed your career.’
‘Yes, he did,’ he brightened. ‘I was proud of that.’
‘Your mother. Did you know?’
‘No; and I didn’t plan it, if that’s what you’re getting at; by which I mean I know what I did, but only wanted to find her that night. I didn’t know what I’d do once I got there.’
‘It was dark, everyone was watching television.’
‘I watched from by the trees at first, at the windows of all the flats, knowing she was in there somewhere. The place looked deserted, only a few of the rooms were lit. I went around the back to the door and walked straight in, I couldn’t believe it was so easy.’
‘Perhaps they still trust people there?’ said Grey; but Mars didn’t spot the jibe, continuing,
‘She had her full name on her letterbox in the hall, otherwise I wouldn’t have found her. So I followed the numbers up… and…’
‘When I got there I couldn’t move.’
‘In the corridor?’
He nodded, ‘Frozen, terrified I was running on adrenalin. I know that feeling, you see, that fear. I learnt to recognise it in my training, to notice it, and acknowledge it and not pay any attention to it; but I couldn’t, I was frozen.’
‘Until I heard other feet on the stairs; young feet, skipping feet, coming higher and higher up. The end of the corridor was wild, dark and full of plants, so I ran into them, pressed up against the back wall. And then I saw her.’
‘No, Esther, coming don’t the corridor, running toward me. I mean feet away from me.
‘She went to Stella’s room?’
‘No, she stopped still and then ran off.’
‘She saw you?’
‘No, no. I was invisible.’
But she sensed you, thought Grey. It came home to him then how Mars had robbed his own daughter of the chance to know, even to have an hour speaking on equal terms with, the grandmother she hadn’t before than evening known she had. Mars, his arms handcuffed behind him, lay prostrate, increasingly uncomfortably on his back on the lightly sloping roof; and Grey could understand why the young Constable had wanted violence done unto him; and why other officers, the bad ones you read about in the papers, might at this point — a doctor yet to attend, the man’s present injuries as yet unknown, with no one watching — have wanted to land a size-nine right into his midriff, again and again till his kidneys burst and his liver couldn’t cope with the injuries to his system.
But instead he only asked,
‘I stepped out, back into the light. Her door was already open, and when I went in there she was, at the end of the table, like she was waiting for me,
‘”Patrick. Well, what a day it is for surprises.”’
‘You recognised each other?’
‘Yes. She was just the same, the same eyes, face, only her hair had gone grey. “I think you have a daughter,” she said. “She’s bright. You must be very proud of her.”’
‘The daughter you hadn’t seen for, how long?’
His face screwed itself up in unfacable pain, he turning it sideward, one way and then the other as if someone held a knife to it, before gasping for air like a landed fish. The sobs came quickly now, Grey imagining the inner-horror as he summarised,
‘The mother you thought abandoned you, who you thought didn’t love you, yet who was so glad to see you; the daughter you’d already cast away, had given up on; all the love you had missed out on, all you would miss out on. You snapped?’
‘She got up, came forward to greet me, and I…’
As if on cue the bright-coated medics burst onto the roof. In the end Grey hadn’t meant to hurt Mars, but he had more than ever by making him remember.
‘His breathing’s weak,’ said the lead medic, they unbuttoning his suit blazer. ‘His chest’s bleeding. Didn’t you check him?’
‘Hard when he’s pointing a shotgun at you.’
‘We need these cuffs off.’
The medic didn’t argue, instead shouting back down the ripped corridor, ‘We need a stretcher here. Stab wound, internal wounding.’
The big man didn’t seem diminished for his injuries, Grey still not imagining he could be badly hurt. For the medics’ presence he still had to ask Mars,
‘And Charlie Prove?’
‘Ah, him. Is that his name?’
‘You didn’t even know him?’
‘Oh, I knew him. I wouldn’t forget him. I had to go back you see, to the Cedars the next night: to relive it, to understand what had happened, what I’d done. I hid in the trees, watched the windows, watched them all go to bed; and then the alarm went up, lights were on, people moving around.’
‘One of the residents was taken ill.’
‘Well, what could I do? I slunk back, stayed hid, and then… and then there he was, dashing away down the road. I could see his pyjama legs beneath the coat. It was like he’d been gifted to me, feted to meet.
‘I went after him… and he only led us right to these wretched buildings my mother was always out at meetings campaigning about when she should have been home with me and dad, when I begged her to stay.
‘I don’t even know if he knew I was there. But then he stopped at the yard, turned around and… I’d bought the stick with me as a cover, for the Cedars, so I could rest on it while passing, looking like I needed it, like I was tired. I found I was gripping the stick so hard, and there was suddenly so much to ask him, to find out, but he just smiled at me like… like he wasn’t all there, and I knew there’d be no point, that I’d get nothing from him. And that tension, everything he did to my family, all the stuff from when I was a kid, it all came out and I had my stick in my hand and I just swung it. He tried to turn away and it came around at him to hit him on the back of the head. It… just kept going, the stick, went into his head, through his head, left a ridge in his skull.’
The medic, who had been diligent in his work, now cast his patient a look of horror before silently resuming his treatment.
Grey’s voice was white and dry as fired clay, ‘”From when I was a kid”?’
‘We went once to pick her up, after “one of her blasted meetings”, as dad would say, and she was getting into his car. She came over smiling when she saw us, bold as brass, saying how lovely it was we’d come to collect her, looking back to her fancy man, saying, “I won’t need that lift after all, my boys have come to pick me up.” I remember seeing him, and how my father looked at him; and I knew that night when my parents argued that it was him who dad was talking about.’
‘The night your mother left?’
‘I sat on the stairs listening — I used to when they argued. They didn’t know I was there. Dad called her “a whore and a harlot”, said she was out every night, and now he knew where. That she ought to be spending time with us. She was crying, trying to talk about the Council and her meetings, but he knew it was lies.’
‘How could you know? You were Seven.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Years later dad told me about it, but he hadn’t known I’d heard.’
‘Where’s that stretcher?’ called the medic. ‘You’ll have to ask him this later, it’s tiring him out,’ he said without conviction. But Mars went on regardless to his health,
‘And that’s what all came out when I struck him; and before I knew it he was down. What for, you ask? For loving my mother, for being loved by her, for having all those years with her living there so close to me, the son she’d walked out on. I hated him for splitting up my parents, for robbing me of my childhood, for leaving me with a father who could never trust a woman again.’
Grey was agog at this inversion,
‘Patrick, your mother and Charlie, they were at Council meetings. They were on sides utterly opposed.’
‘So you say.’
‘You’re forgetting how it went that night. Your father kicked her out onto the street.’
‘She ran off to be with him.’
The man resumed crying, and Grey knew there was no point arguing.
The stretchermen came, they covering Mars’ mouth, they telling him to be calm, to relax, not to strain anything; yet he whispered to Grey as they lifted him to lead him off,
‘When we’d walk this way when I was growing up, my dad used to say, “You know, your mother would’ve hated these flats, she did all she could to stop them.” He sounded sad when he said it. She’d hurt him, you see.’
The day had seemed too bright to be wading through such murky waters, these matters better suited to the veil and shadow of the Confessional. Grey had listened to Mars with no desire to be the sharer of his secrets, his confessor by necessity maybe, but never a confidant. They didn’t need his words, they already had their case: the women’s statements, forensics from the house, and lack of alibi would do for Patrick Mars. Grey left the rooftop calmed by this.
Cori was standing by her car at the site of the earlier crowd scene, the shops now back to usual busyness, though the conversations of the shoppers given an urgent edge.
‘How’s my little soldier?’ she joked as Grey met her welcome presence.
‘Tired. I guess Rose wants to see us?’
‘Oh, hospital first, I think. Try not to bleed on the upholstery.’
He felt for his collar, remembering, and realised that for all the medics around him upstairs the cut on his neck hadn’t even been asked to be looked at.
‘You learnt a lot today,’ he said in the Infirmary waiting area, he proud of her achievements.
‘A shame it all came in the wrong order though, before we had a chance to bring him in.’
He shoved the letter from Derek Waldron, crumpled now from his adventures, into her hand.
‘He’s not too bad apparently, though he worried the doctors for a while,’ she said after reading. ‘It looks like Derek did get his “lucky blow” in before Mars got his.’
The doctor concurred when Grey got to see her,
‘It’s not good for someone Mr Waldron’s age to get beaten about like that; and as for Patrick Mars, he’d been bleeding internally for two or three hours before we got him. I’ve seen men die from smaller cuts.’
So Waldron was bad but far from fatal; and as for Mars, well, Grey knew he was unfinishable. He had the same faith in Mars’ immortality as we each have in our own. Mars would have many healthy years of life ahead of him, to be wasted in whatever institution the state chose in which to dispose of him.
‘Why don’t you get off home?’ had asked Grey while waiting to be seen.
‘Are you joking? Once we’ve gotten you patched up then I’ve three days of my notebook to write up.’
‘They’ll wait until till morning.’
‘No they won’t, because something else will be along tomorrow; as you well know.’ She bumped shoulders with him in a friendly gesture, just as his name was called from across the room,
‘Right then, you’re up. You want me to wait?’
‘No, I’ll see you back at the station.’
She gave his hand a squeeze. ‘My hero,’ she said and pecked him on the cheek. ‘Then I’ll go and see Natasha.’
At that moment though though the doors came the male Constable, who Grey had speculated before might have been seeing their now-injured colleague. Giving the senior officers a nod as he dashed to her bedside, as the uniformed figure passed through the room the waiting people whispered, their own complaints distracted from, ‘They’re the police who took down that gunman.’
The sense of pride and slight embarrassment at being the centre of attention would continue a while yet, as the regional news carried footage of the six of them in carbon-fibre vests rushing into the Hills shopping building. That he had done little other than hold cover behind a doorframe as the one-and-only shot at them was fired was neither here or there.
Back at the station, Rose echoed Grey’s own instruction to Cori, but backed his with authority. Ordered not to show his face again till morning, Grey couldn’t quite cope with home yet, even with it being not far off a normal worker’s knock-off time. Despite being put on strong painkillers that forbade drinking, and it being too early for him to start anyway, he needed company, faces, voices, and so walked the short walk to the Young Prince Hal Tavern.
‘Pint Grey?’ asked Bill Blunt at the bar.
Grey showed and rattled the plastic pillbox, Bill pouring him a pint of lemonade. His barmaid Janice, wiping a glass distractedly nearby, smiled at him before returning her gaze to the news rolling silently across the flatscreen television hoisted up above the door.
‘Lord, we’ve made the BBC,’ said Grey. ‘It must have been a slow day.’ That the TV was even on in the Prince Hal at any time other than a national sporting event was itself a turn up, Bill not a lover of technology in pubs.
‘Steak and eggs for The Holdup Hero?’ he offered. Grey gave him an equally sarcastic smile as he nodded and fell into a cushioned chair.
Chapter 28 — Loose Ends and The Cedars Again
The next day was far from the rush Cori foresaw. After a straight five hours of report writing, form checking and statement rereading (for several of those he’d spoken to had since come in to go on record) Grey found himself hitting lunchtime; and what for him was a time of day that, with nothing happening to distract or excite him, could prompt a fall into a mid-afternoon lull. Cori was in a similar situation along the corridor with her own pile of paperwork.
Throughout the day new information had come in: reports on the plant matter found around Stella’s injuries proved inconclusive; though the walking stick was definitely covered in blood, and there seemed no way it wouldn’t be found to be Charlie Prove’s. However, in a shock move it later appeared that none of this fact checking might prove vital after all, a visit by Superintendent Rose to see and Patrick Mars, with his solicitor at his bedside, bringing the news that Mars would sign a confession if it saved his daughter Esther and second wife Ludmila from the trouble of a court appearance.
Perhaps Mars had loved the women in his life all along, pondered Grey; before realising that of course he had, it was letting this love show through the gauze of suspicion and distrust cast by his father that had always been the problem, and the confusion caused by this inner-conflict that had seen him lash out so violently.
He wrote a note of thanks to Kehoes, wishing Stacie the best with her studies; and made a mental note to speak with and thank Campbell Leigh next time his business with the Hills Estates Community Forum brought him to the station. The archive file on the killing of Eunice Prove sixteen years ago was also on his desk, to be looked at in detail when time allowed.
Grey then rang Andrea the solicitors’ secretary to make an appointment with Raine Rossiter for any time she was free the next week; for there was business in that office that he felt could still use going over. He worried later though that Raine might interpret his appointment as a wish to see her for herself. This wouldn’t have bothered him so much had he not from somewhere gained the impression that however married she may be, she would be quite willing to forget this fact while it remained inconvenient. He meant no offence to the woman, rejecting this imagined possibility, she was simply not his type.
He stopped and examined his feelings here: how was she not his type? He couldn’t say, in fact imagined she might be quite jolly company, once they were far enough from town and sure that no one she knew was seeing. Perhaps he simply didn’t want the tangled situation; and realising how free he suddenly felt not to be having to manage such a clandestine affair brought a wave of relief that felt like a man trapped below ground breathing fresh air.
He realised he had played this whole drama out in his mind based on nothing, and was suddenly embarrassed at what she might think in their meeting could she read his mind. He’d also assumed she would have noticed him that way to begin with; and anyway, for any woman to believe he had engineered a situation to meet her again assumed he was any good at making such moves.
He knew why he was thinking such speculative things, and it was down to no greater fact than that of his mind being again free to do so. The end of ‘the Mars case’, as he had begun to name it in his mind, was a mental liberation, for him and all his colleagues: a freedom from every thought, every decision, potentially meaning someone’s life and death. Soon he would have to take up the less-pressing cases put aside for this emergency: the minor frauds and pub punch-ups, the family feuds and smashed car headlights. He would face these Monday. Meanwhile, was there anything left pressing re: Mars?
Sifting through the paperwork on his table, something came to hand that reminded Grey of a conversation he had had earlier with his boss.
‘There is still the question of what to do with friend Waldron,’ was how Superintendent Rose had put it during their briefest of chats after his returning from Mars’ bedside. ‘The way I see it, it all rather comes down to this letter he left you.’
The police had little room for relativity in their operations: a crime was a crime, their job simply to investigate and apprehend. Yet what hung over the Super’s desk between them that morning was the question: what harm had the self-styled ‘unlikely avenger’ of Stella and Charlie’s memory actually achieved?
Rose spoke the unspoken, ‘Your letter makes it clear he meant to kill Mars, all that stuff about landing “one lucky blow”. Without it we don’t even know that that screwdriver wasn’t just in his pocket when he went out, or that he was doing any more than — I don’t know — conducting his own ham-fisted investigations at Stella’s old house.’
‘Before getting into a scrape with Mars?’
Grey felt the notepaper still in his pocket where it had been for twenty-four hours, it having felt more personal than anything he’d want to log as evidence. In truth, he’d put off the decision.
‘You’re offering him a way out of trouble, sir?’
‘How old is he now,’ asked Rose. ‘Late Sixties? You’re fine after your knock-out drops, so’s that housekeeper I’d imagine.’
‘Quite. And after seeing Mars I don’t think he’d have the gall to claim assault, not with all his deeds weighing heavy on the other side of the scales.’
The Superintendent continued, ‘You know, this morning Mars seemed really quite placid about it all, now he knows he’ll never see another member of his family ever again.’
Replaying this talk in his mind reminded Grey that he had meant to go and see Natasha sometime that day, though he remembered now that there weren’t visiting hours again before seven that evening. Picking up the papers that had interested him from the pile, he gathered himself for one last walk to the Cedars.
To the sound of lady blackbirds singing in the trees, Inspector Rase walked one last time along Cedars Avenue. The spring had seemed to break through at last, and he held his jacket over his arm. As he arrived at the building he had known only glancingly until three days ago, he took a last look at the frontage as approached; at its three rows of six large windows, each the portal to the life of a person or couple, and now he could have given you many of the names.
Top row, end but one, was Stella Dunbar’s room, the first they had been called to; while somewhere on the first floor was Charlie Prove’s, though Grey couldn’t quite place which. Easier was Derek Waldron’s, it being the nearest to the edge of the building that the path and service road ran around, and which Grey now took to bring him to the rear-side and the doors and the dayroom.
It was a familiar scene that greeted him there, of Ellie and the other orderlies arms full moving between chairs and tables, and of residents who recognised him by sight now wishing him good afternoon.
‘Look who’s here, Derek. I told you they’d be coming to take you away.’ Rachel Sowton was sat at a table in a back corner doing the books. Having gotten to know her a little now, and suspecting her as one of those for whom a streak of irony might be riven through their very soul, Grey recognised how even at a time like this she was working with black humour even as it brought her to within an inch of the anger she must have been feeling toward her old friend.
Following her gaze as she spoke, Grey saw Derek Waldron sat alone by a window and looking out forlornly. He had taken a battering, still not looking much better yet than he had two days ago slumped in Patrick Mars’ hallway. Barely a part of him that was visible — head, neck, hands — didn’t feature somewhere a bandage, bruise or reddening.
Grey had made a mental pact with himself on the way there that if Derek was honest enough in the conversation he intended they have, helped him fill in enough of the blanks, then he the Inspector would allow that sincerity to relieve the doubts he had about the decision he already knew he was going to take regards the letter. Yet now, seeing him his state, his boy-told-off demeanour as saddening as his physical injuries (which also mitigated in his favour, it clear his wild adventure of two night before had brought its own swift punishment) Grey was gripped with an urge to do no more than cheer the old fellow up; and from that hazy night he’d taken the sleeping draught he remembered when he had seen Waldron at his most enthusiastic, his most animated, his troubles least to the forefront of his mind.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the man as Grey approached.
‘Apology accepted. And for the record, I’m only here to talk.’
Waldron leaned in, whispering, ‘But I drugged you.’
‘Which I think you know was a disgraceful liberty.’
‘It was stupid, yes, but…’ (Grey watched as the man battled with the memory of actions he could scarcely credit had been his own.) ‘I took the screwdriver, I…’
‘…Lunged at someone?’ Grey whispered back. ‘Yes, and an hour later that someone fired a shotgun at a policewoman. You good to walk?’ he resumed full volume. ‘You were telling me before about our town, our buildings. I wonder if you’d take me on a tour?’
He lit up in recognition, ‘Of the houses?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Rachel from across the room, ‘Get him out in the fresh air a bit, save his moping around indoors.’
Derek went to find his coat.
‘And how are you?’ asked Grey, moving to Rachel’s desk.
‘Fine, a bit groggy yesterday. You?’
‘The same,’ he answered, though the excitement of the day had quickly burnt it off. ‘And in general?’
‘Oh, I could throttle him. And with everything else I’ve got to deal with…’ she gestured with her arms to the table full of papers and accounts. She took a deep breath, ‘Of course I know he meant well, in some hare-brained way. And I’m glad it’s over now.’
‘How is the girl?’ she asked.
‘Esther? She’s with her mother.’
‘And they really didn’t know?’
‘No, but I think the moment Esther did that Stella did too; could work out what Esther had from the letter she’d snatched.’
‘Perhaps they’d always known, just needed the facts to tell them?’
Grey liked the sound of that.
But Rachel was still thinking of Derek,
‘You really can’t take him away. He’s our last original resident now. We’ve lost too many people — you know the Carstairs aren’t coming back either, he needs specialist care.’
Grey was sad to hear that, Rachel going on,
‘We need weight on the Committee, people who can help me run it. I’ve already had Raine on the phone asking what we’re going to do. I’ve called a meeting for next month, but I haven’t even thought about it yet.’
Grey could see the mantel of Stella’s leadership had fallen on Rachel’s shoulders, whether she wished it or not.
‘Of course we’ll give up Charlie’s flat, properly this time. And if the state takes it then the state takes it, their choice of who they sell it to. And then there’s Stella’s flat to sell, and Mrs Cuthbert’s next door; and the Carstairs’ eventually — so much change, it will be good to have the lot of it put to bed.’
Chapter 29 — The Hills Again
During that late afternoon Grey thought he had learnt more about architecture then he would from a late night up with the Open University; though given his teacher’s idiosyncrasies, current state of mind and years out of the game, he wasn’t sure how much of it would have held as current thinking. Thus far on their jaunt Derek Waldron had waxed lyrical on the merits or otherwise of an infants school, a row of large detached houses, and most memorably on a just-put-up fast food restaurant whose front and sides were made entirely of glass:
‘Imagine it at night lit like a beacon: you’d be drawn to it like a moth to a lightbulb, wanting to be inside the glow.’
Derek’s injuries seemed wholly superficial, he walking and talking with boundless energy. They approached the Hills estate, which was always going to be their destination, not along a main road but rather a side street of older, terraced homes, so as to contrast with the newer development ahead.
‘Note how straight the road is we’ve just walked along, and those around it, how simple to know where you are and where you want to get to, how easy to offer directions to a stranger that would keep them going for miles. Yet compare that with this.’
Before them across the main road and in sharp contrast with the terraces’ clean lines was an apparently randomised mess of grass and path and untended hedge, surrounding houses squat like cinder-blocks. The men were stood on slightly higher ground this side of the main road, and so it gave the slight impression of being on a viewing platform, able to take a large chunk of the Hills estates in en masse.
‘When I come this way, Inspector, it reminds me of my nephew with his LEGO blocks, as if the architect had thrown a bunch of them up in the air and set the position of the buildings on where each block fell. You see the architects wanted to break up the Victorian streetplan, as Modernists in painting had broken up the sweeping brushstroke and in music had made melody atonal. These were the Cubists of their field, and they saw themselves that seriously.
‘And so you can take in a view like this and see no house in line with any other, no street squarely joining with another.’ Waldron paused at this favourite spot a moment longer, before leading the Inspector toward the main road to cross it.
‘Indeed a lot aren’t even Streets — note all the Walks and Groves and Avenues.’ They were entering the estate proper now. ‘You see, it was another aspect of the planners’ idealism that large parts of the estate were built without spaces for parking — see where the Council have had to lower the kerbstones, where lawns have been slabbed over, where fences on strips of public land are pulled up and cars are parked in the mud. All this because the designers believed in the dream of clean and fast and safe state-subsidised public transport, servicing the public to the degree that people wouldn’t want cars.’
Grey’s guide pointed to a concrete space lined with graffiti’d garages, obscured by a fence and some odd-shaped maisonettes,
‘And where there was parking, like here, it was in collective plots and banks of garages tucked away behind trees or houses — the naivete of these designers that they so believed in the social spirit they wished to foster in their estates that they didn’t think crime would fester in such hidden spaces, or that people wouldn’t want the simple reassurance of being able to keep an eye on their own car from out of their own window.
‘Come on, we need to get somewhere in this direction — if we can figure out our way!’
Grey felt a strong inclination not to follow, and not only because of the recent death and dramas he had been involved in along the route they were taking. The fact was that for all the bright hazy atmosphere of the afternoon this was still the Hills, and that for his being in plain clothes a policeman still stood out a mile here. He began to wonder if the charm of taking such a walk wasn’t wearing off? He was also aware that for all Derek’s apparent energy, his aged guide was only one day out of hospital, and that by the time they got back the round trip would have been a long one.
It was after school hours, and at the corners of buildings already gangs of youths were forming, watching only with curiosity for now the copper and the old guy with his patchwork of injuries passing through their borough. Derek didn’t even seem to notice them — perhaps he often came this way, though this time able to voice the theories usually kept inside? He was evidently still concerned with the mindset of those town planners nearly forty years ago,
‘Without intending it they made a haven for crime and despondency. I saw your reticence back there just now, Inspector, your unwillingness to follow this way. You’ll know yourself how unpoliceable such places are, the spaces they offer for vice to dwell, for vandalism, for the mugger to lay in wait along these pathways or hide from the police if being chased.
‘And what of the other crime? An even worse one if possible, the true offense such estates commit against their population: the psychological effect on people of being stranded in a place where you literally cannot see a way out: where you can’t see a main road or a bus route even from the end of your street; where it’s hard to direct a taxi or visitor to within half a mile of your house or flat; where those who’ve lived here all their lives can still get lost; where what you see around you is the collapse into squalor of a built environment not maintained and a planted environment literally gone to seed.
‘To live here is to have an address you keep a secret for fear of how people judge your area; to feel yourself abandoned by life and holding the belief that you’ve been left to rot, that you’ve been told by your nation that you aren’t worth any better and that they have no other use for you. To live here is to feel left in a maze that you can never get above roof-level to see your way out of, a place where the ground seems to rise in all directions, where there’s no horizon line.
‘The planners thought the simple application of modern social principles could make a better world, when all they did was make a more confusing one. With best intentions they consigned a generation to a lesser life than they might otherwise have had. People were buried in these estates, Inspector, literally buried — lost in the mire and never scrambling out.’
The relentlessness of Waldron’s argument began to grate on Grey, the way a conversation can when you want to go quiet awhile yet someone else is on a favourite topic: it wasn’t always healthy to offer free reign.
‘But they were products of their times,’ said Grey. ‘What else could they do, how else could they build?’
‘You’re right of course; and at least they gave good room-sizes, believed people deserved the space to swing a cat. And what have we got now instead? New estates of blinking Hovis houses, a retreat into a non-existent past, people clustered up in plasterboard cells, peeking out through tiny thick-framed windows. There are times when I feel I’m not sad to leave the future to the young.’
It was still only spring, and the sun for all its brightness was fading. Grey didn’t want to be here without colleagues once it was gone. This wasn’t cowardice or fear of attack, only that an officer being here without on obvious purpose and not in sufficient force could unsettle people, prove agitative, and create a scene requiring officers and cars and blue lights that took all evening to calm down.
They reached the Prove site, and there for some reason was a patrol car still guarding that patch of cordoned tarmac. Like a traveller in a far-off land making a vital connection, Grey made for them and requested they radio for a second car to come and pick them up. He was told that there was no other patrol in the area, and so they would have to wait for the next one to leave the station. Grey wondered if being transported in the back of a squad car wouldn’t be a little too close for comfort for Waldron, given his recent fears of incarceration? But it was either that or a taxi, and Grey couldn’t see it made much difference which.
As they stood by the car waiting, Waldron, the afternoon guttering, sped up the narrative as if this was the last chance he’d ever get to say the rush of things suddenly on his mind,
‘This was what Stella was fighting for; not against the notion that people needed homes, not just exercising some personal NIMBY reaction, but expounding the belief that this was a bad design, a bad estate; and that a new spirit of social collective goodwill may indeed illuminate such a place, and let those living there be the first ever generation not plagued by the old social ills, but the odds were always going to be against it; and that this was no ones fault, not a failure of hope or skill, just the realistic understanding of one not caught up in the spirit of her times. She knew this was a bad design, and that the money would never be found to build it well or to keep it up properly; and for that the visionaries and utopianists of her age hated her.
‘The same people thought the classroom could become a playroom, that the feelings of the children were more important than their grumpiness at hours spent having knowledge implanted in their heads, not even the tiniest concession allowed for the ends of the finest education system the world had ever known to justify its means. Again Stella was out of step.
‘And that was what you bought me here for really, wasn’t it, to ask about Stella and Charlie.’
Grey had by now quite forgotten. He took out the document he had found on his desk earlier and passed it to Waldron,
‘Do you recognise this? A researcher found it for my Sergeant when we were following up the Council connection, before we learnt about Patrick Mars. I found it on my desk this morning. It’s a copy of the Councillors’ Directory, Nineteen Seventy-four, including a piece, “In honour of the contribution made by the recently retired Councillor Mrs Stella Mars”, written by “Mr Derek Waldron, Assistant to the Town Planning Officer.”’
The author held it in his hands, ‘I‘d forgotten writing this.’
Grey took it back and read from the photocopy:
‘”…Though young and relatively new to local politics, Councillor Mars invigorated the Chamber with her enthusiasm and with the passion of her arguments, leaving no one in doubt of her commitment to do the best she could for the people of the town, even when her ideas of how to achieve this common good differed greatly from those proposed by her fellow Councillors.
‘“In both her personal and professional dealings these recent years she has been a beacon, a model of how a Councillor, indeed how any citizen, can conduct themselves with dignity and purpose. As such she has been a credit to the democratic process and the civic life of the areas she served. Southney Council, indeed Southney itself, have been illuminated by her presence and will be the lesser for her leaving public service. We can only wish her well.”’
The man flushed.
‘It reads like you greatly admired her.’
‘I just though it was a shame, how she left: we’d all heard the rumours of the separation, her leaving the family home. The other Councillors seemed glad to see her gone, free to force their plans through. Someone had to write it.’
‘He wouldn’t gloat, he wasn’t bad like that.’
‘But you were on her side?’
‘I wasn’t really anything back then. It was my job just to bring the right plans to the meetings and to take them away again afterwards. It shouldn’t have been me writing this.’
‘I’m sure we’d all like something like that written about us.’
‘We can hope.’
‘It sounds like more than a professional admiration. And no one guessed your feelings?’
He shook his head.
‘Even after reading that?’
‘Oh, no one reads those things, and they were glad she was gone. Only I missed her.’
‘Look, forgive me for saying this, and I get why you couldn’t do anything back then with her being married and all; but couldn’t you have pursued it once you were both at the Cedars? Both single, both alone… You could have told her, you could have broken through the ice.’
‘That wasn’t ice around her, Inspector. It was permafrost. She wouldn’t have wanted it, trust me: that calm she had cultivated was her only comfort, and raising feelings she imagined belonging only to her past would have shuddered that calm away.’
The man shook his head, the memories now returning,
‘I saw him once, Samuel Mars, with Patrick. We came out of the Council Chamber at the end of a long meeting and he was parked outside, which was unusual, waiting to take her home. As we spilled out Samuel opened his door and stood up, looking over, but I don’t think Stella saw him at first. She was talking with Charlie, who might have offered her a lift, as they were walking to his car. This was old Charlie, charming Charlie, and no matter how they went at each other in meetings they were always civil outside of the Chamber.
‘I think little Patrick had gotten out of the car too and called out “Mum”, and she turned around, still laughing at some joke of Charlie’s, and saying, “Don’t worry, Charlie, my boys are here, they’ve come to collect me!”
‘There were lots of us leaving, you couldn’t blame her for not immediately clocking the pair of them; but in those very few seconds of not being noticed, something happened to Samuel. Perhaps he thought she’d already kept him waiting long enough, perhaps he was embarrassed at not being spotted, I don’t know; but the look he gave her, full of burning fury: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man look at a woman that way before or since. I don’t suppose there was any more laughter at the Mars house that evening. I wonder now actually whether that wasn’t one of the last times…’
‘You know,’ he changed tack suddenly, ‘no one bothered to find out where she went, why she stopped coming to the meetings. Someone should have, don’t you think? And I was as guilty as anyone.’
‘Where is that squad car?’ asked Grey, it getting decidedly dark on the estate. The officers in the car they were leaning against now had the interior light on to catch up with the forms they were filling in.
‘Poor Charlie,’ Waldron went on, ‘met his end not twenty feet from where we stand; and as for Patrick… he didn’t stand a chance, did he, not with a father like that. I don’t regret what I did, you know.’
‘No, I sense that. So, if Samuel made Patrick bad, then what made Samuel?’
‘Who knows, he was certainly old enough to have stored up some bad experiences. Maybe something from the War? And as for why a woman like that would marry such a man, well I’ve often thought back to those times, to remember how things were, how we thought back then, whether women really did need to marry a man, any man, just for social standing.’
‘It’s not all bad then, the future. Some things get better.’
Grey was attempting to lighted the tone; yet Waldron was struck by another memory,
‘I think Patrick had another family once, a darker-haired wife, and kids.’
‘Yes, he had.’
‘I saw them once in town. He looked right at me, the dad — Patrick — he was the spit of his father, the same eyes. And I’m told now his daughter was the girl I saw on the stairs?’
‘Do you know the difference between Spanish concrete and British?’ Waldron suddenly brightened, glad to get himself back on more familiar ground. ‘Damp, we have it and they don’t. In sunny climes concrete bleaches white, makes ivory of every public building…’
Grey didn’t see much evidence of such crystal kingdoms here.
‘In Britain the rain gives concrete the look of sodden cardboard, while being almost purpose built to give bad health to anyone living in those walls, as much an incubator for bronchitis and pneumonia as asbestos is for its related conditions. Quite conclusively the worst thing the Romans ever did for us; and that’s even before we get onto stylistic concerns, not all of which prevailing wisdom I share incidentally.’
‘Well, it sounds like you’ve seen what it can be like abroad.’
‘I have. And there’s much to applaud in our estates of that era too — after all, something must keep drawing me back to here — Just look at it!’ He raised his arms as if to embrace the whole of the Hills. ‘The chaos of the place, the wildness of the greenery all around, the way the different materials age — you’d be a fool not to be thrilled by the daring of it all, the ripping up of the rulebook, the occasional flashes of architectural lunacy.’
He pointed to a row of little buildings facing just away from them, the nearest seeming to form out of its unmown lawn as the trunk of an oak does from the forest floor, the structure — the same for all in the row — intentionally featureless but for windows that, like in a child’s drawing, were small and different-sized and pushed up into the corners and along the edges of the building’s face, leaving an expanse of uniform brickwork at its centre,
‘Look at those lopsided eyes — madness; and how little light you’d get inside. I’m not sure if it’s a lunatic or a sadist who thought people ought to live in such objects.’
That theme exhausted, he moved on,
‘But of course, there’s the strong community spirit here too — though forged more through solidarity than hope — which Campbell Leigh, and Charlie before him, have done much to channel wisely. You know what the irony of it is though?’ asked Waldron as they both looked across the courtyard now to the short block of flats that Charlie had been found beside, its structure a mix of glass, tiles, concrete and the same red bricks of the shopping centre that Grey had earlier noted glowing in the sun. ‘That the upkeep of these buildings is so expensive once the rain gets into the concrete reinforcing, that in a hundred years there might not be very much of it left. Imagine that, the predominant style of the whole Late-Twentieth Century absent from the architectural record.’
Waldron was rattling away now almost on autopilot, these obviously long-held and oft-rehearsed set-pieces,
‘There are some who love these buildings and estates for political reasons, that they represent the only time socialistic principles guided architecture…’
By now though Grey was zoning out. He heard a car engine coming by, then moving away, then getting louder again as it negotiated the unintuitive route toward them.
‘…where every house was as large as every other, every tenant treated the same, all run by the state as one grand scheme! Like socialism itself I suppose, another experiment that cost a fortune and failed in wet climates. Ha, forgive me, my little joke. And there it is, the unwritten first rule of architecture, that every building looks better on a sunny day.’
With that the car finally found its way around to them, and stopped to take them home.