Lock, Stock and Peril (Lindenshaw Mysteries, #6)
They may be locked down but this case isn’t.
Lockdown is stressful enough for Chief Inspector Robin Bright. Then a murder makes this strange time even stranger. In one of Kinechester’s most upmarket areas, the body of Ellen, a brilliant but enigmatic recluse, has lain undiscovered for days. Pinning down the time—and date—of death will be difficult, but finding a killer during unprecedented times could prove impossible.
Adam Matthew’s focus on his pupils is shaken when a teaching assistant reveals his godmother has been murdered. Keen to avoid involvement, Adam does his best to maintain a distance from his husband, Robin’s, case, but when it keeps creeping up, Adam lends his incisive mind to the clues again.
Between Robin trying to understand the complex victim and picking his way through a mess of facts, half truths, and downright lies from witnesses desperate to cover up their own rule-breaking, he realises this could be the cold case that stains his career and forever haunts a community. And when it looks like the virus has struck Adam, Robin’s torn between duty and love.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: angst, bullying, Covid, duty, family, geeks / nerds, grief, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, internet culture, isolation, marriage of convenience / fake relationship, protection, reunion, self-confidence, Shingles, stalking / harassment, trust issues, workplace romance
“No murders allowed, right?”
Robin Bright glanced up from doom-scrolling the news to view the pleasing sight of his husband, Adam Matthews, who’d broken the silence. Hair tousled from where he’d been snuggled up on the sofa having forty winks—with Campbell their Newfoundland providing a useful blanket for his feet—Adam gave the impression of only being half-awake. Perhaps he’d not known what he was saying, still partly in a dream world.
“Eh? No murders allowed when?” Robin asked.
“Now. Anytime, really. I was saying that if we do get away for a holiday this summer, we don’t want it being spoiled by you getting called in to a murder case three days before we go.” Adam grinned, in a way that could still turn Robin’s knees to water. “You weren’t listening, were you?”
Robin held up his phone. “Exhibit A. I was trying to keep abreast of the news. If it’s possible to keep abreast of it.”
What a year 2020 had been, and the start of 2021 wasn’t shaping up that great, either. Some activities that had been allowable the previous January were now—in his opinion quite rightly—an offence, and the patterns of crimes had changed. One thing hadn’t altered, although it had been emphasized: you were most at risk from those people you knew, friends and family, rather than a homicidal stranger.
“Keeping abreast? We believe him, don’t we, boy?” Adam patted the dog’s head, getting a yawn in response.
“Pfft. Tell you what, I’ll get in contact with all the villains on the patch to ask them to keep their hands to themselves when it’s coming up to the school holidays. Maybe a leaflet drop round all the houses would work for the ones who aren’t on the radar yet.” If only such a thing were possible and, if possible, effective. During every run up to an important family event, like a holiday or their wedding, Robin found himself worrying whether mayhem would break out in Abbotston or any of the local towns. As a result of which, all leave would get cancelled until the culprits were safely locked up.
“We’ll help you distribute them.” Adam patted the dog again. “I keep thinking that it’s been a while since you’ve had a complicated murder case to deal with and that our luck can’t keep going forever.”
“You’re tempting fate.” The last such occasion Robin had dealt with had been off their patch, when he’d been called in by his old boss to cover a team that was short-handed. This part of the world rarely saw killings that weren’t easily solved. All in line with his proven belief that you were most likely to be hurt by your nearest and dearest. “May I remind you what has a habit of happening when one of us says something like that?”
“Don’t remind me. You’re too good an officer, so I keep worrying that you’ll get whisked away to the other end of the country because the local police can’t cope or have all come down with it. Maybe when you’re handing out these flyers, can you print on them that any crimes that happen have to be within a thirty-mile radius?”
“Shall I start a blog and put my diary on it so the crooks know when they have to behave themselves? Maybe you want to put in a time frame where it would be acceptable for them to commit crimes?” Did other coppers have this kind of conversation with their partners or did his and Adam’s quirky sense of humour mean they were unique?
“That’s a great idea. Not sure your chief constable would approve, though. Campbell’s giving me a look of disapproval. Very law-abiding, this dog.” Adam tickled the Newfoundland behind his ear. “Is it wicked to hope that if you do have a major case to deal with soon, then it happens during this lockdown period, where it can’t get in the way of anything else?”
Not wicked so much as pragmatic. However . . . Robin addressed the dog. “Campbell, is your other dad hinting that he’s likely to get fed up of having me under his feet again?”
The question didn’t need a reply: banter like that had eased them through the previous lockdowns and any other occasions where they’d had no other company but their own. Being lovey-dovey all the time, with no jibes or jokes at your partner’s expense wasn’t in their repertoire.
The Newfoundland slipped away from his comfy perch on Adam’s legs, crossed the room, and rubbed his head against Robin’s hand, wagging his tail contentedly.
“He must have heard the magic word lockdown.” Adam shook his head. “Clearly looking forward to weeks of people being confined to barracks again. He loves it.”
Campbell had never been so fit and healthy as over the past year. They’d walked miles with him, singly or together, and when they’d been able to form a bubble with Adam’s mum, she’d volunteered to take him out. Ostensibly, this was so the lads could have a break from doggy parental duties and get on with the odds and ends they needed to do on their new home in Cranshaw, but Adam was in little doubt that it was really about being able to spoil the dog rotten. He also suspected the dog formed a useful excuse for her to stop and chat to people, getting the sort of contact that was proving difficult otherwise. Everybody wanted to ask about such a handsome hound, despite the fact they couldn’t get close enough to be favoured with his slobbery chops in their hands.
To bubble or not had caused some of their colleagues a lot of angst, but Adam and Robin had escaped lightly on that front. Despite Robin’s mum being widowed, they hadn’t needed to feel guilty about not choosing her, given that she’d already formed a bubble of her own with his aunt Clare. A more formidable duo than those two women was unimaginable; woe betide anyone who didn’t wear a mask or keep their distance when they got on the case. The government had no doubt missed a trick by not employing an army of retired women to make sure that everyone was obeying the rules.
Aunt Clare had a flat over at King’s Ashley, which reminded Robin . . . “Have you had any further thoughts about that headship at King’s Ashley Primary?”
“Yes. And no, I don’t think I’ll go for it.” Adam was still on the young side for taking over a school, and he reckoned the one he’d seen advertised there was going to be a poisoned chalice. It had gone through four headteachers in ten years, a stuck school that needed a big kick up the backside: anybody taking that over would either make their name as the genius who turned it round or be listed as yet another failure.
“I think that’s the right answer.” Robin hadn’t wanted to force the issue, given that he believed Adam would make a bloody great headteacher, even in such a challenging situation, and the school concerned was within easy travelling distance of their new home. But it hadn’t felt right, for whatever reason. Maybe his copper’s brain had filed away something he’d heard or read about the place, perhaps from Aunt Clare herself, which had left a definite don’t touch this with a bargepole impression.
“Oh, really? Is that why you’ve been so noticeably neutral about it?” Adam knew him too well. “Anything you want to share? A murderer on the board?”
“Nothing so concrete. If there had been, I’d have told you. Just a feeling that I’ve come across the place in the past, like the feeling I had about Aunt Clare’s Jeff.”
“That sounds ominous, given what your rozzer’s nose turned up then.”
Jeff had come on the scene the previous summer, his name ringing a worrying bell. It turned out he’d been a suspect in a peculiar burglary case back when Robin was a constable, and the months before Christmas had seen Abbotston’s finest—both Robin and his exceptionally efficient sergeant, Pru Davis—solving the cold case and clearing Jeff of suspicion in the process. Satisfying all round and further evidence that if Robin’s instinct was that something was worth investigating, it should be done.
“You know what’ll happen now, don’t you?” Adam continued. “You’ll get a case come up at King’s Ashley, and it’ll turn out to be centred on the school. Some ex-colleague of mine who’s the prime suspect, and I’ll have to sweet-talk him into giving me the golden nugget of a clue.”
Robin rubbed Campbell’s ears. “Tell your other dad that I don’t deliberately set it up for him to be involved in my cases. They seem to want to draw him in.” Too often to be healthy. “He shouldn’t have so many useful connections.”
“All my useful connections have dwindled to a handful of people with whom I have the occasional Zoom chat. Most of which end up being extremely awkward.” Adam stretched out his arms, yawned, then snuggled down.
“Are you having another nap?”
“No. I’m assuming my thinking position. Those Zoom chats had me wondering whether you can murder somebody over the internet. It’s been tempting at times.”
“Sounds like perfect fodder for one of these noir television series. From Norway or somewhere else on the Baltic.” Interesting concept, though. The internet had proved a breeding ground for old crimes in new variants—a con artist’s paradise—but Robin had yet to see that taken to its ultimate variation. Except in the hideous case of people being egged into taking their own lives. “Perhaps you should use the new lockdown to start writing a murder mystery. You have plenty of ideas.”
“I have my own tame technical advisor too.” Adam shook his head. “Nah. I know too much about what cases are really like to put down a made-up version. Too mundane, no good cop, bad cop anymore, not as much reliance on forensics as the fictional varieties portray. I could write a light-hearted version, though. A super-intelligent Newfoundland who solves mysteries that leave his owners—a sassy detective and a super-sexy teacher—totally baffled. Campbell the Clever Canine. Dougal the Dog Detective.”
“Hamilton the Holmesian Hound. Write it. You’ll make a fortune.”
Adam gave a contemptuous snort. “Oh yes? In what world do the majority of writers make a fortune? I used to know one through Lindenshaw church, and he always told people who wanted to write a book not to plan on giving up the day job.”
“See, you have all the connections. If I end up with a murder case that needs specialist publishing input, I know who to come to.”
Adam had provided specialist educational input in the past, along with tales of what it was like serving on a jury. Linking up with old pals, snitching on choir colleagues—Adam’s input to solving cases had gone above and beyond on occasions, including the time he’d joined an archaeology club simply to get Robin the information he needed. The bloke was a diamond.
Robin’s mobile rang, jolting him out his thoughts, bringing the unpleasant suspicion that they’d tempted fate again and this was indeed the station calling him in for a case that would interrupt the normal running of the Matthews-Bright household.
He suspected wrongly. It was work related but nothing worse than his ex-sergeant, Stuart Anderson, picking his brains about a series of armed robberies he was investigating. Now based at Hartwood, some two hours’ drive north, he still sought help from his old and—he professed—favourite boss.
“How’s he doing on his new patch?” Adam asked, when the call ended.
“He sounds happier than ever. Taken to Hartwood and environs like a duck to water, loving fatherhood, and full of praise for Rukshana Betteridge.” If Anderson had a soft spot for Robin, the man himself had a softer one for his former superior officer, the woman who had helped form the policeman he’d become.
“She’d have been happier if you’d relocated up there, but I guess she’ll find him a chip off the old block. As long as she doesn’t have to live with him—I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.” They’d accommodated Anderson temporarily when he’d had a domestic falling out, and it wasn’t an experience they’d hurry to repeat. “I was sure that phone call was the duty officer wanting you to come in and deal with some incident or other. It usually happens when we’ve been talking about it. Perhaps we should ban the subject.”
“Like we’ve banned Covid clichés? What would there be left to talk about?” A cushion striking Robin’s head showed what Adam thought of that.
By the time January was nearing its end, the dreaded major case still hadn’t reared its ugly head. Irrespective of them tempting fate. Adam had settled into his new work routine and had started to keep an eye on the primary headships that were being advertised. There were still vacancies around, in this county and over the border into Hampshire, so all he’d need was one within a reasonable travelling distance of their home. If the right one came up, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a whirl, despite his not having many years as a deputy under his belt. Good interview practice if he got short-listed, if nothing else, and his experiences when they’d recruited a new headteacher at Lindenshaw would help. Poacher turned gamekeeper and all that. His existing boss, Jim Rashford, would give him a glowing reference, despite the fact he’d told Adam he didn’t want to lose him and would do everything he could to give him further responsibility and wider experience while still retaining his services.
They’d had a conversation that very Thursday morning about whether an acting headship for a term might be a good way to tick all the boxes. And if it was within the Culdover cluster of schools, Rashford would still have Adam’s brains available to pick. The headteacher had promised he’d get on to the county education department to register Adam’s interest, as they were always desperate for good people they could parachute into empty seats. Quite a pleasant prospect to consider as Adam drove home, ready for an evening of cottage pie and football on the telly with the two people he loved most in the world.
Robin’s car wasn’t there when Adam got home, which wasn’t unusual, given that the bloke didn’t necessarily keep regular hours, but seeing his usual parking space empty produced a hollow feeling in Adam’s stomach. Maybe Robin’s copper’s nose had rubbed off on him, and now he was sniffing something wrong. He pulled out his phone, saw that he’d forgotten to put the sound back on, so had missed Robin messaging him half an hour earlier. Adam decided to go into the house before he read the message. He could pretend it was because Campbell would have heard the car and would be straining to make a fuss over him or be made a fuss of; however, the truth was that he was a touch scared that this would be notification of another case. Worse still, a case that would take Robin halfway across the country again.
Adam got out of his coat, put down the stuff he’d brought home, fussed over the dog, and then gave himself a talking to. Fine bloody headteacher he’d make, not being able to read a text in case it carried bad news. He swallowed hard.
I’ll be late home. Have tea without me. We’ve got word of a murder in Kinechester. Not really our patch but guess what—bloody Covid has hit the team there so we’re taking over the case. I’ll tell you about it when I do get home.
Kinechester? That was a relief. The main county town—technically a city because of the cathedral, though neither of them were that large—was within easy travelling distance of their house, so Robin wouldn’t need to stay away. There’d been nothing about the murder on the local radio news, however, and when Adam checked the BBC site on his phone, the story only appeared as a report of a police incident in the Ramparts ward of the city.
Kinechester was an odd place. As the name suggested, it had been founded by the Romans, although the large Iron Age hill fort a couple of miles south of the city indicated the area had been occupied long before the legions came stomping in. The city centre still based itself on the great east-west and north-south roads, although very little of the original walls and gates now remained.
“Your average Roman would have recognised what’s for sale in the local shops,” Adam told Campbell, who seemed incredibly interested in his history lesson. Perhaps he was thinking of food, although olive oil, spelt flour, fish sauce and Italian wine were hardly his cup of tea. “A deli-worshipper’s paradise. You’d have had to develop a taste for falafels if we’d moved there.” The phone ringing interrupted their mutual love fest. “Hi, Mum. How’s life?”
“Busy busy. You wait until you’re retired. Never a moment to call my own, lockdown or not. What’s this I heard on the traffic news about avoiding the Ramparts because of a police incident? Houses prices there are so astronomical you wouldn’t have thought they’d have such things.”
“Now, why do you think I’d know what this is about?” Adam chuckled. “Or that I’d tell you if I did. Anyway, Kinechester has its rough areas. One of my pupils used to live on the council estate there, although his parents had plenty to say about the prices in the cafés. Arm and a leg for a coffee near the Ramparts. Poshest of the postcodes.”
It was an area of Victorian and Edwardian housing taking its name from a much-used, much-loved and much-envied open space that was riddled with humps and bumps. At some point in the past—allegedly during the civil war although nobody was quite sure—earthworks had been set up there and cannon stationed behind them to protect the city.
“It’s as well you didn’t move there, then.”
“Exactly.” Adam and Robin had strolled around the area in the run-up to the Christmas before last, when Robin had recently completed investigating a gruelling assault case and needed some fresh air. Somewhere far away from anywhere he’d visited for work. “Nice place to visit, especially the Christmas market and the restaurants, but beyond our means.” That had put paid to any idea they’d entertained of moving to the area. “Anyway, your maternal telepathy is spot on. Robin’s got the investigation, and that’s all I’m saying.”
“Isn’t that off his patch?”
Adam snorted, always amused when his mum broke into police slang. “It’s the bloody ‘rona.’ Hit the local team so he’s got to cover for them.” A sudden silence down the line. “Hello? Are you still there?”
“Sorry, dear. I was thinking about Robin. Kinechester’s a Covid hotspot, you know. Numbers off the scale. I . . . I hope he takes care of himself.”
Ah, so that was what the call was really about. his mum was obsessed with the latest data, able to tell you exactly which local areas had the highest infection rates. Less worried for herself or Aunt Clare than for her son and son-in-law, she said, especially with Culdover usually being another hotspot.
“He’ll be fine. The king of hands, face, and space.”
After the normal goodbyes, Adam ended the call to find Campbell staring up at him. He rubbed the dog’s ear. “Don’t you go worrying yourself, as well. Anyway, your other dad’s going to be late in, mate. Maybe past your bedtime. Maybe past mine.”
However, his partner would be snug at his side in bed in the wee small hours of the morning, alive and well. Which was more than could be said for the poor victim, whoever they were. Naturally, Adam could never help worrying whether Robin would make it through a case intact—hell, the man had been threatened at gunpoint in their old kitchen. But, despite that and other incidents, they’d all three managed to get through unharmed. So far.
His mum’s phone call had left Adam feeling strangely uneasy, though. A gun or a knife were visible dangers; you couldn’t see this bloody bug. We’ll have to dodge that viral bullet too.
Robin, Pru and Ben—their favourite and most reliable constable from the Abbotston team—had headed out to Kinechester as soon as needed. They’d been on standby all day, having heard first thing that the detective inspector at the city station had tested positive and the team members he’d been in close contact with were self-isolating, with at least two of them showing symptoms. Please God they didn’t end up with anything serious kicking off on both patches.
Various machinations were going on in the background about ensuring the incoming officers had a safe workspace to operate from in Kinechester, given that Abbotston, at twenty miles away, wouldn’t be a practicable base.
“Not as bad as going two hours up the motorway to Hartwood,” Pru had said, when they’d been summoned.
Robin couldn’t help but agree. “Thank God for that.”
Ben hadn’t said much at all, although the grin he’d been clearly striving to hide showed how delighted he was to have been chosen for the task over his fellow constables. Robin had been passing word up the chain of command that the lad was ready for promotion and the experience would do him the world of good.
They’d had a briefing over the telephone from the senior officer at Kinechester that dispensed the basic information. A woman’s body had been found in a house in Cromwell Road, the street that adjoined the Ramparts green space. She’d been found by a delivery driver, Sam Hoskins, who’d come to drop off a mirror that the deceased had ordered and paid extra to have brought on that particular afternoon. He’d arrived about half past four, got no reply to his ringing the bell, so having a note of a safe space to leave the package in and—perhaps more importantly—not wanting to have to come back another day to somewhere right on the edge of his area, he’d nipped round the back.
The terraced Victorian properties in Cromwell Road were tall, with basements in the bottom where the servants would have worked and attics at the top where they’d have slept. Because there was no side access, a service path ran along the back of all the gardens, separating them from the gardens of the houses in Ireton Avenue.
Hoskins’s paperwork said to leave the package in the back garden by the French windows. He’d found the garden gate wouldn’t open, but it wasn’t that high and he was a tall bloke, so he’d easily climbed up to peer over. He’d been about to shoot the bolt when he’d glanced across at the house and spotted that something was wrong. When he’d found out just how wrong things were he’d had a hell of a shock. Well, Robin reflected, he’d had the decency to do his duty and ring 999, despite knowing the inconvenience he’d cause himself. Other folk might have simply walked away and left it for someone else to report.
They found the driver still at the scene, being cared for in the back of an ambulance, where he was clearly in a state of shock. After a brief look inside the house, so that they could get a mental image of the scene—and a horrible one it proved—Robin and Ben took a few moments to compose themselves. Such a sight was bad enough for a case-hardened officer like Robin but, in fact, Ben coped remarkably well, turning green about the gills yet keeping the contents of his stomach intact.
Once the fresh air had worked its magic, they went to interview Hoskins while Pru liaised with the various people already at the crime scene. The local constable who’d been keeping the place secure could then fulfil the important task of seeing off some of the gawpers.
The first thing Hoskins said after Robin had introduced himself was, “You wouldn’t pay a delivery premium and then not be there to receive the package, would you?”
It seemed an odd thing to come out with, until Robin reflected that the driver must have been mulling everything over in his van as he waited for them to arrive. “No, I suppose not.”
“That’s why I wondered if she was out in the garden, so I went round to see. I’ve delivered here before and knew about the back path.” He clasped his hands as they began to shake. “I didn’t expect to see her like that.”
Robin’s team would all sympathise with the man. A body that had apparently been dead for a fair amount of time—in a house where the heating had been on, albeit turned down, according to the first officer on the scene—was a sight to turn the strongest of stomachs. He’d seen plenty of corpses by now, attended autopsies, the whole works, but this instance had made him queasy, not least because of the unique smell of decay.
“I know it’s hard, but can you describe what you saw while it’s fresh in your mind?” Robin asked, in his most soothing tones.
“I . . . I spotted something on the floor of the lounge, through the French windows. It’s not that big a garden, so you get a good view. Too good a view. I saw the shoes, so wondered if the customer had suffered a fall, which could be why she hadn’t answered the door. I opened the gate, went up the path and . . .” Hoskins turned green, grabbed a bowl, and vomited into it. After wiping his mouth with a towel the paramedics must have given him, he apologised and continued. “I’ve never seen a dead body, not in real life. I’ll be having nightmares about it. Those flies and things.”
“You’ll feel better eventually, I promise. If you can tell us everything now, it might help.” Hoskins would likely be needed as a witness if the case came to court and have to relive the experience as a result, but Robin wasn’t going to mention the fact. “The lounge curtains were open?”
“Yes. Or else I don’t suppose I could have seen in. She had nets at the front. I tried to look in there earlier but couldn’t.”
Many people along Cromwell Road had net curtains or had grown a front hedge tall enough to maintain their privacy. If the curtains were open, why hadn’t she been spotted before, though? They’d have to return tomorrow in the daylight to do a proper reconnoitre, but it seemed likely the back of the house would be visible from the windows of those properties that were on the other side of the alley, if not from the neighbouring gardens.
“So, you saw the body and then what did you do?” Ben smiled encouragingly.
“Heaved my stomach contents into her flowerbed. If your CSIs find vomit, it’s mine. Then I got my phone and dialled 999 while I legged it back to my van. My mind was going round like a roller coaster and some of it’s almost funny. I kept thinking I didn’t want to get a parking ticket and would a warden believe me if I said I’d found a dead person and was waiting for the police to come? Would you lot suspect me of having killed her? What was I supposed to do with the mirror? It took me ages to realise I should ring head office and tell them what had happened too. I was doing it when the police car arrived.”
“Why did you think she’d been killed?” Robin asked. “She might have died of natural causes and then not been found. It happens with older people.”
“Have you seen the state of her?” Hoskins grabbed the bowl again, although he didn’t use it. “I may not have seen a body before, but I’ve watched plenty of stuff on the telly. It seemed like the carpet was stained with blood and—”
Robin and Ben waited while he dry retched, but before they could ask any further questions, the paramedics appeared again and insisted they get some fluids into the bloke as he’d puked so much he was at risk of dehydration. They’d take him to the local hospital where he could be properly cared for—with the unspoken implication that getting him away from prying policemen would be part of the treatment. Robin thanked them for being so conscientious and then thanked Hoskins, saying they’d be taking a proper statement when he felt up to it.
Pru was waiting for them as they emerged from the ambulance. “Victim’s name appears to be Ellen Wilkins, sir, according to what’s been found in her handbag, although the Photo ID isn’t all that useful under the circumstances. She was stabbed, several times, with a weapon that might have been anything from an illegal blade to a large kitchen knife, although there may have been several weapons. At least one of the wounds was either expertly placed or a lucky strike, straight into the heart. The doctor thinks death may have been pretty well instantaneous, given the blood loss. Likely to have splashed onto her attacker, unless he—or she—was very fortunate with that as well. The lounge carpet’s probably been cleaned, although the crime-scene lot should be able to find residual evidence. No incriminating bloody footprint on the carpet or even mud in the hallway, like you might expect in the winter. I’d say there’s a possibility that the killer had taken off their shoes, so were in their stockinged feet and slipped back into them before leaving.”
“Wouldn’t that make the victim suspicious, if the visitor took off their shoes?” Ben asked.
“You’ve clearly not been a guest at a house where they insist on it.” Pru shook her head. “I hate it when protecting your carpets takes precedence over making your guests welcome.”
“Do you get the impression she was that house proud? She was wearing shoes, herself.” Robin wrinkled his nose. Now they were into gathering all the bits of the jigsaw, building up a picture of the victim and what was unique to her.
“Not particularly, but first impressions can be deceiving. Got a puzzle, though. The doctor thinks the victim has been dead for weeks rather than a few days. Initial guess is at least a fortnight and possibly over a month, although they may be able to narrow that down. Which begs the question of how she’d arranged for a delivery this afternoon, unless she did it ages ago.”
Odd to pay a premium to fix a particular date so far in advance, though. Braving the wrath of the paramedics, Robin got back into the ambulance. “Sorry about this, Mr. Hoskins. One thing we need to check now. We’d like to know when the order was placed, so have you got any of the delivery paperwork we could see?”
“Placed last week, I think, but I wouldn’t swear to it. It’s all in my van. Here’s the keys.” Hoskins shakily fished them from his pocket, then pointed them towards a company-branded van that was occupying the residents-only space outside Ellen Wilkins’s house. Given the reputation of the Ramparts, it was probably lucky not to have been given a ticket while the driver was in the back garden.
“I’ll go,” Ben said. He returned a minute later with some papers. “Have a butcher’s at that. It definitely says the order was placed last Wednesday, by Ellen Wilkins herself.”
Unless the paperwork was an elaborate piece of forgery—and why anybody should want to do that Robin couldn’t think—then the order was genuine. And must have been made by somebody else using the victim’s name, address, and possibly bank card. He could think of a reason why that had happened, but he’d keep it for the team briefing the next morning as it was exactly the sort of thing that a smart constable should be able to suggest. Doing so would boost their confidence. He didn’t know anything about the team at Kinechester, although previous experience had taught him that not every working environment was as good as the ones that he and Cowdrey created.
“Pru,” Robin said, “can you take one of the uniformed constables and get a statement from the neighbours at number forty-one while Ben and I tackle number thirty-seven? We’ll do a total sweep tomorrow when we have a bigger tranche of information from those who lived closest.”
“Will do. I think it’s wise not to go out generally until we’ve got a better handle on things.” Pru cast a glance up and down the road. “Lots of people to talk to and I’m not sure at present what the key questions are. This isn’t going to be straightforward, is it?”
“That, sergeant, is an understatement.”
Alex Carey, the neighbour to the left when viewing the houses from the pavement, had already made herself known to the police, offering hot drinks to anyone who needed them on such a bitter night. Robin, chilled to the bone and regretting not having his base layers on, wished he and Ben could take advantage of the offer while they took the initial statement, but Abbotston policy at present was to refuse any food or drink that might carry an infection risk.
When Robin entered the house, he spotted two girls peeping round the corner of the stairs.
“Over excited,” Alex Carey said with what appeared to be a forced grin. She patted her husband’s arm. “Can you look after them, Greg?”
“Yeah. Carly, Cerys, how about we watch Frozen?”
The offer was greeted with enthusiasm, although no doubt the girls would have preferred being in on the action. It was probably unlikely that the police and CSIs had ever turned up in such numbers in Cromwell Road; no doubt said children would be cross that they couldn’t tell their mates all about it in the school playground the next day. If they were old enough to have their own phones, the texting would already have started, misinformation possibly spreading like wildfire.
“She always kept herself to herself, Ellen,” Alex Carey said, once they’d settled at the dining room table.
Robin slipped back his mask and took a sip of water from the bottle he’d brought, the iciness of the drink making him curse those Covid protocols. The house seemed full of homely aromas: a spicy tang in the air that must have been their evening meal, a musky aroma of masculine scent that might have been Greg’s. Quite a contrast to the awful smell pervading the neighbouring property. Double glazing must have contained it, although wouldn’t the person delivering the post have got a whiff through Ellen’s open letterbox? The silence, only broken by the occasional sound of buzzing fly, had contrasted to this house, where the telly had been blaring when they entered, fighting the music coming from the kitchen. However, all was calm now, apart from “Into the Unknown” coming from upstairs.
Time to get down to questions. “How long have you lived here?”
“Ooh. I was pregnant with our first, so just over nine years. We love it. Never known anything like this before. It’s such a nice area. Nice people.” Alex frowned. “What will I tell the girls?”
“The nearest you can to the truth. That Ellen’s died and the police are here to find out who killed her. That they’ll be safe.” Robin smiled reassuringly. “Ben, can you give Mrs. Carey the contact for a family liaison officer before we go? Then you can get some advice if you’re worried.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“That’s what we’re here for. It’s not an easy time for anyone. Still, the sooner we can get answers to our questions, the sooner we can get on the trail. Do you know how long Ellen’s lived here? And would you call her a difficult neighbour?” Robin asked.
“I think she moved here a couple of years before we did. And as for being difficult, no, not at all. I’d call her a nice woman, scarily clever.” Alex pulled a face, maybe trying to get across how impressed she was. “Greg—my husband—used to get her to help him with his tax return.”
Robin picked up on the tense. “Used to?”
“Yes. Last summer, around about the time they usually got together to thrash the figures out, Ellen dropped a note round here saying she wasn’t going to be able to help out this time. Said she was very sorry but she’d be too busy. Greg didn’t mind, because he’d made plenty of notes from past years and was able to tackle it all on his own, although we felt there might be more behind it than what she’d told us. Maybe she was losing her faculties a bit and didn’t want to admit it. Greg’s grandmother went that way in her seventies, which might be why he’s such a fitness maniac. Wants to keep body and brain active. Ellen used to talk to him about running because she was a great athletics fan. She had tickets for Super Saturday—Greg was so jealous. Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent.”
“That’s all right. It’s probably the shock.” Robin gave her an encouraging smile.
“Probably. Like I said, his grandmother never wanted to show any signs of weakness and neither did Ellen. Hated even to be offered help.” Ms. Carey thrust a plate of individually wrapped biscuits at them. Ben shot Robin a glance, evidently waiting for him to give the go ahead. They both took one.
“Older people can be like that,” Robin said, opening his biscuit and wondering when—if—this evening he’d get a proper meal. “Especially if they’ve always been independent and used to responsibility. Do you know what job Ellen did before she retired? Accounts?”
“Maybe. I know she worked in a government department, although she wasn’t all that forthcoming about which one or what she did there. Rather secretive about herself, but that was her prerogative. Life around here isn’t like one of those soap operas where they live in each other’s pockets all the time.”
Which wasn’t helpful for the police. “When did you last see her?”
“To speak to? Last November, a few days after Guy Fawkes’s. Lockdown two. I was on the way home from taking the children to school, and she was standing at the front door, arguing with somebody.”
“Arguing? Who with and about what?” Robin glanced over to make sure Ben was still making notes, irrespective of his biscuit consumption. Amazing how he could so expertly juggle recording information and filling his face.
“A woman from up the road, Sonia. Don’t remember the surname. She’s a Facebook friend from my daughters’ school, and she normally changes her hair colour each month, so at present she’s stuck with fuchsia pink and the roots showing.” The witness was clearly enjoying the other woman’s discomfiture. “I think, credit where it’s due, Mrs. Pink-Hair—sorry, my two girls call her by her latest dye. Sonia. She may have been asking Ellen if she needed any help and was getting an earache for having dared do so. ‘I can take care of myself perfectly well, thank you,’ Ellen said. Or something like that only not quite as politely. I felt I had to pitch in because I couldn’t walk past without saying a word. I smiled, said that if Ellen needed anything, she knew she could come to us, then I ran inside here before I could get a mouthful.”
“From Sonia?” Ben asked.
“No, from Ellen. I offered help during the first lockdown, and I’d never be so daft as to do it again. She gave me a right telling-off and told me she could cope perfectly well on her own. She certainly seemed to get on all right. She was going out and about, having grocery deliveries and whatever.” Ms. Carey frowned. “I don’t think there have been any in the last couple of weeks. I know she stocked up her freezer so it wasn’t unusual for her to go a long time in between, but I should have noticed that. Has she been dead a long while?”
“We’re not able to say at present. Any idea when the last food delivery was?”
The witness shook her head, pushing forward the plate of biscuits again as she did so. “She definitely had one a few days before Christmas. She normally only used Waitrose, although she swopped to somebody else when it became hard to get a delivery slot last spring. She tried several local companies, so I couldn’t tell you for certain who she’s been using recently.”
“Thanks. And thanks for these too.” Robin took another one of the delicious raisin cookies. “And you’ve not seen Ellen in person since early November? In over two months?”
“As I said, not to speak to, no. But that’s not been unusual, especially over the last year. She hunkered down during that first lockdown, like a lot of people did. She hadn’t been told to shield—too fit and healthy for that, she said—so when I didn’t see her for a week, I was worried something might have happened. Greg said we should check on her, and I told him he could do it, because I’d had my legs smacked only a couple of weeks before, as I told you, for offering help. He thought I was being daft not wanting to go next door again, but he learned his lesson.” She grinned, tipping her head up towards where her partner must be now. “She said she was perfectly all right, wasn’t a three-year-old, and asked why a woman couldn’t have some peace and quiet without being bothered by do-gooders.”
Ellen sounded a right charmer. A highly intelligent, increasingly cranky woman who might have been starting to lose her faculties. Had that combination ultimately contributed to her death? “That must have upset him.”
“It did and it didn’t. He’s pretty tough and, like I said, his granny went the same way, with the aggression and covering up everything. She was always lovely to our girls, though. Every year she gave them an Advent calendar with chocolates in. She said she’d not been allowed such luxuries when she was little, so Carly and Cerys got a bit spoiled.” Alex furrowed her brow. “That’s another rough date to fix on. Right at the end of November, she was coming home from shopping, because we were putting decorations in the window, the girls and me. I know it’s too early, but last year was so miserable, we wanted something to cheer us up.”
“My mum’s keeping her decorations until Candlemas,” Ben said.
“Ours came down on twelfth night. Very traditional around here, you know. You’d be hung if you kept Christmas lights up all year. Anyway, back to that day and Ellen. She waved and clearly wanted to speak. I opened the window, and she asked if the girls could come in to hers and get their Advent calendars. They thought it was such a treat, being allowed out on their own. Maybe it wasn’t wise, but I thought, ‘Alex, it’s only next door and for a few minutes.’ I kept an eye on them. Sorry, I’m going on, aren’t I?”
“You’re helping to build up a picture. I was starting to think Ellen was a bit unpleasant,” Robin confessed.
Alex snorted. “Only to people she didn’t want to see. She’d put a notice in her window asking people not to call unless invited.”
“When was that?” Ben asked, while beavering away to get all this recorded in his usual neat and effective style.
Ms. Carey shrugged. “June, July, maybe? I lose track of time, especially last year, when all the weeks melted into one another. I know it was there in November, probably after pink-hair’s visit. I don’t think it’s there now, although I couldn’t swear to it. These things become wallpaper after a while, don’t they?”
Robin hadn’t noticed any note in the front window, but given the darkness and the focus on both the body and the delivery driver, there might have been fifty notices there. He’d already instructed the CSIs not to move anything that could be seen from the front or rear of the property as he wanted to return the next day to a scene that was as close as possible to how it had been during the previous few weeks. To see the house as others had seen it from outside, note and all. “You weren’t suspicious about things like the lights not being on?”
The witness shot both of them a puzzled glance. “But they have been on. I’ve seen them going on and off quite normally. My girls think it’s rather pretty where she has that stained glass in the window above the front door, and the hall light shines through it onto the pavement. Ellen likes that window. Sorry. I should say liked.”
That at least explained part of the puzzle—why nobody had raised concerns about an apparently unoccupied house—but begged the question of who, or what, was operating the lights. “What would you describe as ‘going on and off quite normally’?”
“When it’s dark, so in the evenings and mornings.” Alex Carey addressed him as she might have addressed one of her children who was being obtuse.
“Is it exactly the same time every day? I mean, could they have been operated by a timer?” Ben asked.
She appeared to take a moment to think, then nodded. “Yes, quite possibly. Ellen might have used an app to operate them. Very techno-savvy for someone of her generation.”
“Thanks, that’s helpful. What about curtains? Open and shutting.” Could they be operated via an app? Robin could ask Ben later—he was bound to know.
“She never bothered with closing the front curtains, because she has—had—nets, which were always drawn across. Nobody could see in, and I think she used to sometimes like sitting there, enjoying the view across the green. It gave her a lot of pleasure to see the trees changing with the seasons and the children playing. She liked children.” Ms. Carey suddenly burst into tears, the full impact of what had happened no doubt striking home.
Robin told her to take her time, that sudden death was always tricky to deal with and that she was being very helpful. Still, she’d fall into his can’t-be-ruled-out category simply because she’d known the victim well, although she’d admittedly given no hint she was experiencing anything but genuine shock and grief.
After a minute and some furious nose-blowing, she said, “Right, Alex, pull yourself together. Lounge windows. Ellen has blinds on all her other windows, but I couldn’t tell you about whether they’ve been open or shut. The hedge between our gardens is pretty high. She grew it like that both this side and the other side, to keep her privacy.”
Was this insistence on keeping the world out eccentricity or bordering on the fanatical? “Do the houses in Ireton Avenue overlook these gardens?”
“Mostly, although directly behind us is the Methodist Church, so there’s a stretch of houses that have nobody able to see in from the back, including us and Ellen. That’s one of the things that appealed to us about this house and, knowing her, I’m sure she’d have felt the same. Liked to get into her garden in the good weather.” The witness tapped the table. “She was her usual self during the summer though. As soon as we were allowed to travel again, she went away for a holiday. At least we assumed it was a holiday. She went off in a cab and when we got back off our own holiday a few weeks later, she was home again. Cleaning her dining-room windows—those are at the front. We got a wave, which would suggest her lack of help with the taxes wasn’t because we’d upset her or anything. We’d actually been talking about inviting her to Greg’s fortieth birthday party in the spring, assuming we’re allowed parties by then. Extending the olive branch.”
Robin looked at his notepad, merely to get thinking time, as he wasn’t sure what else they could achieve at present. He was forming a list of questions about other deliveries such as parcels arriving either side of Christmas but he’d hold fire on them for the moment. With any luck, Pru would be able to fill in some of the blanks from the other neighbours’ answers. “You never suspected anything was wrong these last few weeks?”
“No. And now I feel terrible about it. I’m sure I saw her in there over the Christmas break, but you know what it’s like with the children and presents and getting the groceries in—you don’t have time to notice very much. It was extra stressful this year. Almost a punch-up in Waitrose over the last pack of salad.”
Robin nodded. He’d been grateful they’d discovered a farm shop locally, which had been both well-stocked and not heaving with customers in the run up to the big day. “So you think she was still alive on Christmas Day?”
“I think so. Although now I’m beginning to doubt myself. If I had to swear that I saw her, I’m not sure I could.” The witness sighed. “I’ve got to confess I’d begun to avoid her. She was clearly becoming a recluse out of choice and having been snubbed before, I didn’t want another telling off for saying or doing the wrong thing. But I should have put on my big girl’s pants and gone and checked on her. If she’d been taken ill and I’d found her, maybe I could have got help to her in time.”
“I wouldn’t beat yourself up over that. Without pre-empting what the postmortem turns up, I’d say it’s highly unlikely you could have made any difference to her.”
On that sombre note and with a few formalities, including a promise for an officer to come back and get a statement from Greg, too, they left.
“What do you make of that, sir?” Ben asked, when they were clear of the property. “Could you really not say the last time you saw your neighbours?”
“In my case, yes. I’m out all day working and it’s dark in the evenings. I notice their lights on but that’s about it. I saw them out for a walk a few weeks ago, although I couldn’t tell you what day that was and, to be frank, it could have been a month ago. Time flies.”
“I guess you’re right. If I had to swear to a particular date, I’d be struggling unless there was something to hang it on, like they’d interrupted me watching the big match.”
Pru had yet to emerge from the neighbours’ house on the other side, so Robin and Ben went back to number thirty-nine. The uniformed officer, PC Brown, had been first to attend the scene and was still present, doing a sterling job of keeping an orderly scene and moving on any rubberneckers.
“I’ve jotted down the details of anyone who wants to make a statement, sir,” he said, tapping his pocket where his notebook must have been. “I said we were very grateful and would be in touch within the next few days.”
“Excellent. Any gut feeling about whether they’ll turn out to be useful?”
Brown shrugged. “Fifty-fifty, I’d say. I might be wrong but I got the impression that at least one of them saw this as a break from lockdown boredom.”
Robin and Ben shared a knowing glance. They’d come across a few of those recently. “Were the lights on in the house when you got here?”
“Yes, which I thought was a bit odd, as she’d clearly been dead awhile. I made sure I didn’t touch any switches or anything like that. We had to open the door, but we wore gloves.”
“How did you access the property?” That piece of information hadn’t yet come across. And who was the other part of the we?
“I thought I was going to have to break in. I’d gone round the back with the driver, while Jane—PC Hazel—stayed out front. The bloke next door came out and told her he thought they might have a spare key, so Jane could let us in the front. There’s a burglar alarm, which appears to be pretty recently installed, although it wasn’t switched on. Doubt it would have been set if the victim was at home.”
“Where is PC Hazel now?” Robin wanted to hear more about that key, given that it didn’t fit in with the picture he was building up of a reclusive victim.
“She’s out on another call. Bit of a busy evening.”
“Okay, thanks. I’m going to have a look inside again. Ben, I need your techno-savvy eyes peeled.” Although he didn’t need them to see that the notice warning people not to call uninvited was still in the window, neatly printed and seeming as though it might have been refreshed relatively recently, given the lack of yellowing on the paper.
They soon spotted a variety of devices that could have been used to control the heating and lighting, although the lounge blinds themselves, while operated by a remote control that they’d found tucked away in a draw, didn’t appear to be linked to an electronic system. Ben would need to get into the victim’s devices to find out exactly what was programmed and what would need human operation. They found what appeared to be her handbag, which still contained her purse, the contents of which seemed intact, although if something had been taken, only the victim would have said.
Robin gave the kitchen a once-over, but there was no convenient clue like an empty slot in a knife block to show that she might have been attacked with her own implement. The sharp knives were in a drawer among other cooking utensils, although he had no way of knowing if others had been there before Ellen had been killed. Or anything else that could have inflicted a fatal wound. He took a quick gander in the fridge, immediately wishing he hadn’t.
“We’ll get the CSIs to examine what’s in here,” Robin said. “They have stronger stomachs, and they can list the dates on the food for us.”
Pinning down a date of death surely wasn’t going to be easy from the medical side, so any clue would be helpful.
They left the house, at the same time as Pru was coming out of the one next door. Time to compare notes, although the full debrief could wait until the next day, when the Kinechester officers could be involved. They went and sat in Robin’s car, masked up and looking a bit like bank robbers, it being too cold for standing around outside.
“Number thirty-seven told me she increasingly kept herself to herself,” Robin said. “Seems like she’d created a situation where either nobody noticed anything was amiss or they were too scared to find out.”
“Same story from the other side, sir. They said she was highly intelligent, pleasant enough when she wanted to be but fiercely protective of her privacy.” Pru checked her notes. “They’d not seen her since early December, although the lights were on and off as normal, so they must be on a timer. Unless someone else is living there secretly.”
“They’d have to be tough to live in the same house as that.” Ben pointed at the house. “We should check the loft, though. That was in a cop show, wasn’t it? Somebody living in a couple’s attic and they hadn’t realised.”
“You can do that now if you can access it. Take Brown with you, in case there’s trouble.” Not that it was likely, but now they’d had the idea, they’d have to check.
Pru continued. “I asked Trevor—that’s the chap next door, lives there with his partner Don—if they’d had a Christmas card from her. I wondered if that might help pin down the date of death if she’d dropped one through the door in December.”
Pru grunted. “Not as it turned out. Ellen gave up sending paper cards a couple of years back and used virtual ones, instead. She said it was a waste of paper and stamps and gave the money she saved to a children’s charity. The card arrived a week before Christmas, but as they pointed out, you can schedule e-cards months in advance, so as a piece of evidence, it’s useless. Not using e-cards myself, so not knowing about them, I was a bit miffed. Thought I’d hit on a clue. Score one for the amateurs.”
“He doesn’t fancy himself as a Poirot type, does he?” Robin blew out his cheeks. He’d met that sort before, and they didn’t usually help the investigation, despite what the cosy mystery books said. Adam was different, of course. He was always a fundamentally reluctant participant in Robin’s enquiries, not one to actively seek out a role or pursue his own agenda.
“He didn’t come across like that. Genuinely keen to help but knows his boundaries, I’d say.”
“Good. What about food deliveries to the victim’s house?” The evidence from Ellen’s fridge suggested there’d not been any recent ones.
“Trevor reckons there was a delivery sometime around New Year. Not one of the big supermarkets, though. He didn’t recognise the name of the business and can’t recall it offhand, but he thought maybe it was a local company that had turned their hand to household deliveries during lockdown. That’s not been unusual. I asked him to get in touch if he did remember which food supplier it was.”
“He didn’t see her take it in?”
“No, although he assumes it was her. Not that we’ll assume anything.”
“Quite right. They had a key for her house so the attending officers could let themselves in, I believe. Doesn’t quite accord with her being practically a hermit.”
“It came with their house.” Pru consulted her notes again. “They only moved in a couple of years ago and soon realised that while Ellen would be no trouble as a neighbour, she wasn’t going to be best buddies with them. They had a small bunch of mystery keys which they found when they took possession, in a drawer with their spare house keys. Once they’d sorted out which were for the shed or the lockable gun cupboard—the previous owners had been into clay pigeon shooting—they were left with two Chubb lock keys which they couldn’t identify so put away safely in their desk. You know the principle: if they’d chucked them out, they’d have soon found out what they were for and needed them.”
Robin snorted. “Been there, done that. Go on.”
“They’d been in a few months when the people at forty-three told them that one of the Chubbs was a spare key for their house, which the previous owners had kept for them in case of an emergency. Trevor concluded the other key might be for Ellen’s house. Which is why they offered it to Jane Hazel to try, on the off-chance.”
“They never asked Ellen if it was her key while she was alive? Or offered to return it once they suspected?”
“They were too scared to. Which seems daft for a couple of doctors, which is what they are by profession. Seems that they were only really nodding acquaintances with her—people had warned them that if Ellen wanted to make friends with them, she’d do the running—but when Covid reared its head, Don popped round to say if she needed anything, then they were happy to help. He felt like he got a straight red card at football.”
“They weren’t alone. Don’t ever turn into a crabby old woman who won’t let anyone get close to you.”
“I won’t. Although isn’t that a bit sexist? If it was a man we were discussing, isn’t there a chance we’d say he was valuing his independence and not being a burden?”
Before they could debate the point, Ben came back and confirmed that he’d checked the house from attic room to basement and found no obvious evidence of occupation by anyone other than the victim. He hadn’t been into the loft, although the space appeared to be so small it probably only held the header tank. Despite the prices on these properties, he reported, they didn’t occupy that large a footprint, going up rather than out. They had two decent-sized rooms on the ground, first and second floors, with another pair “below stairs.” The kitchen in Ellen’s house—and bathroom above it—appeared to be part of a recent extension into what had hardly been a large garden plot to start with.
“Next door were right about her being a silver surfer.” Ben was clearly impressed. “She’s got an office decked out with her laptop and printer, and there’s also at least one iPad in the house. No Alexa that I could see, but I can do a proper sweep when it’s not so busy in there.”
“You can take all the gear away for examination too. Whatever else we find in her files, they may be some indication of when she last used them.”
“To help fix the date of death, sir?”
“Yep. And to establish if there’s any truth in the idea she was losing her faculties and trying everything she could to hide it.”
Word Count: 108,900
Page Count: 318
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Series: Lindenshaw Mysteries
Release Date: 06/06/2022
Release Date: 06/06/2022