Buried crimes: a gripping detective thriller full of twists and turns

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BURIED CRIMES

A gripping detective thriller full of twists and turns

 

DCI SOPHIE ALLEN BOOK 4

 

 

MICHAEL HAMBLING

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First published 2016

Joffe Books, London

www.joffebooks.com

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The spelling used is British English except where fidelity to the author’s rendering of accent or dialect supersedes this. The Dorchester High School, mentioned in this novel, does not exist. Nor do its staff or pupils.

 

 

The right of Michael Hambling to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

 

©Michael Hambling

 

 

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THERE IS A GLOSSARY OF ENGLISH VOCABULARY IN THE BACK OF THIS BOOK FOR US READERS.

 

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A young woman’s body is discovered on a deserted footpath in a Dorset seaside town late on a cold November night. She has been stabbed through the heart.

It seems like a simple crime for DCI Sophie Allen and her team to solve. But not when the victim’s mother is found strangled the next morning. The case grows more complex as DCI Sophie Allen discovers that the victims had secret histories, involving violence and intimidation. There’s an obvious suspect but Detective Allen isn't convinced. Could someone else be lurking in the shadows, someone savagely violent, looking for a warped revenge?

CONTENTS

Prologue

Chapter 1: The Butterfly Bush

Chapter 2: Local History

Chapter 3: The Worst Thing

Chapter 4: Be At Peace

Chapter 5: Bullying By Proxy

Chapter 6: Faces and Skulls

Chapter 7: Poems of Despair

Chapter 8: Youthful Trauma

Chapter 9: Six Avenues

Chapter 10: Salisbury

Chapter 11: Smoking in the Shadows

Chapter 12: Café Chat

Chapter 13: Walkies, Cuddles and Muesli

Chapter 14: Against the Cut

Chapter 15: Drama Queens

Chapter 16: Soil Samples

Chapter 17: A Happy Little Girl

Chapter 18: Hit and Run

Chapter 19: Infrequently Washed Knickers

Chapter 20: Camberwell Beauties

Chapter 21: Meticulously Pressed Trousers

Chapter 22: Dreadful Death

Chapter 23: Film Star Looks

Chapter 24: Snake

Chapter 25: At Finch Cottage

Chapter 26: On Tenterhooks

Chapter 27: Sisters

Chapter 28: Cynic

Chapter 29: Steamroller

Chapter 30: The Adventuress

Chapter 31: A Dead End

Chapter 32: Scones and Clotted Cream

Chapter 33: Chinese Whispers

Chapter 34: Whatever Makes You Happy

Chapter 35: Welcome to the Club

Chapter 36: Money Matters

Chapter 37: Funeral

Chapter 38: Licked Lips

THE FIRST THREE SOPHIE ALLEN BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE NOW:

Glossary of English terms for US readers

CHARACTER LIST

 

Dedications

To my parents, Nora and Bob. Always supportive and always remembered.

 

To the memory of the late William S Bennet (died spring 1980, Girvan, Ayrshire). Bill was an intelligent and supportive friend and colleague who made a major contribution to my early adult life. He died tragically young.

 

 

Prologue

Midnight.

 

Leaves, damp bark, stone, dew-covered petals, all reflected the silvery sheen of moonlight. Even the soil in the garden seemed to shimmer with a metallic glow, except for a patch of newly turned earth. Its blackness swallowed any light that fell upon its surface, like a dark star. In the centre stood a newly planted butterfly bush, a figure in miniature, protruding from the shadowy earth. It was less than fifteen inches tall. Its erstwhile home, a plastic pot, was lying to one side of the patch, upturned next to a garden fork spiked into the ground.

The late-night gardener stood back from the freshly turned bed and looked at the results of the past hour’s efforts. Droplets of perspiration, shining in the moonlight, ran down a pale face and onto the chin, spattering the dark blue jacket. A cat wandered by and paused nervously for a while, tail twitching, hearing the sound of laboured breathing. The gardener leant heavily on a spade and looked around. Nothing disturbed the silence of the cool night. The figure stood looking down at the newly planted bush for several minutes before slowly gathering the tools together and walking back towards the house. The terrible task was completed.

 

Chapter 1: The Butterfly Bush

Friday night and Saturday morning

 

Midnight.

 

A creak. Possibly an old timber contracting in the cool night air.

Jill Freeman lay awake watching the fuzzy outline of the moon through thin curtains. She could hear and feel Philip, her husband, gently breathing beside her, in a deep slumber. In the moments before he fell asleep, he’d told her how contented and happy he felt. She and Phil had moved to the house in Dorchester ten months previously, in early summer, along with their two children, Karen and Paul. It was the kind of house that families such as theirs could usually only dream about. An old, detached dwelling in one of the town’s leafier areas, a throwback to an earlier century. It sat among a hotchpotch of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian buildings.

Finch Cottage had seemed like heaven for the family of four, after their cramped and noisy terraced house in Bristol. Some of the neighbours were undoubted snobs, but it was a benign kind of snobbery, harmless. And anyway, the area was close enough to permit the Freemans to maintain regular social contact with their Bristolian friends. They were a cheerful and gregarious family who, given time, would fit in to their new social environment. A benevolent great-aunt of Jill’s had recently died and left them a substantial inheritance. She would have approved of their use of the money. They had bought property in an upmarket area, and invested the remainder of the cash wisely.

Jill and Philip were good parents, ambitious for their children. They had married rather later than average, in their late twenties. Now they were fairly fit forty-year-olds, active and careful of their health. Philip was tall and slim. Despite his fair hair, he tanned easily. His freckles multiplied now that he was spending more time outside in the open air. Jill was rather more fit than her husband, but she was shorter, darker and of a heavier build. Karen, the twelve-year-old daughter, was tall, fair and slim whereas the ten-year-old son, Paul, was dark, heavier and shorter like his mother.

The cluster of houses in their immediate neighbourhood, close to St Paul’s church, were all attractive detached properties with sizable gardens. Their new home had been somewhat neglected by its previous owners in recent years, so the Freemans had planned to renovate. This was why Philip had fallen asleep so easily. He had completed the redecoration and fitting of the lounge (sitting room, as the neighbours called it), and they had celebrated by inviting some old friends who were on holiday in Dorset, for dinner that evening. It had been unusually mild for early spring and the four of them had been able to sit with the French windows open, showing a view of the sunset. The Freemans were pleased with their redecoration. Phil’s new job was based in the local town planning office, and his contact with developers and builders had helped him in his DIY work. Their dinner guests ran a small building firm, and Philip had tapped into their knowledge. Bob Walker had helped Phil refit the kitchen before they moved in. He had complimented the Freemans on their choice of decor.

In bed, Philip had talked of his plans for the following day. He would start work on the garden. Many of the trees and shrubs required pruning after several years of unrestricted growth. He was planning to move a buddleia to a more open, sunny position where it might attract a greater number of insects. Then he had turned over and closed his eyes, falling asleep almost instantly.

Jill continued to lie awake, uneasy thoughts swirling around in her head. It wasn’t until well into the silent, early hours that she finally fell into a fitful sleep.

* * *

The next morning Philip was in the garden with Karen. He had decided to go ahead with his plans to move the aged, gnarled buddleia, despite the light rain that had started falling during the night. The ground was now sticky and wet, and both were dressed in old clothes and boots.

‘Why’s it called a butterfly bush, Dad?’ asked Karen.

She had finished clearing away some weeds and other debris from the area around the shrub. She stood, leaning on a fork. Her father had begun to dig a trench around the roots, preparing to lever out the plant.

‘The flowers must be attractive to them. Not just butterflies. Lots of other insects too.’

‘How much longer will it take?’ the girl continued. ‘I thought we’d be finished by now. I’m getting tired.’

‘Not too much longer. The preparation always takes longer than you expect, and we’ve done all that now.’ He looked up at the grey sky. The drizzle was starting to turn into a definite downpour. ‘You start at the other side,’ he added. ‘Let’s try to get it out before we get completely soaked.’ He wondered about postponing the final stage of the work, but looked at their mud-caked clothes. It would be easier just to work on, and then clean up with a bath or shower.

‘There’s an old bit of rug or something under this end, Dad,’ Karen said. ‘The fork keeps getting stuck in it.’

‘Take the spade and chop it downwards to clear whatever’s there. It should come out then.’

Philip kept digging, his damp shirt beginning to stick to his back. He heard his daughter suddenly gasp, and looked up. Karen stood with her mouth open, her eyes riveted on the object she held out. Decayed and rotten fabric had partly fallen away from the lump she had freed and picked up. It revealed the bones of a small, human hand severed at the wrist.

Philip looked at his daughter in horror. She had turned deathly white. She stood, mouth agape, staring at what she was holding, as if unable to let it go.

‘Drop it!’ he hissed urgently.

She looked at him uncomprehendingly, then dropped the hand. She moaned once and began to topple over. He caught her limp body before it fell to the ground, hugging her to him as he carried her back to the house.

* * *

The streets around Finch Cottage had rarely seen such activity. Within a few minutes of Philip Freeman’s emergency phone call a squad car had arrived, followed shortly after by a doctor called out to treat the shocked young girl. Karen was pale, and shivered in uncontrollable spasms, still gasping with occasional sobs. She sat, hunched forward, wrapped in several layers of blankets in the warmest room in the house. White knuckles showed the tightness of her grip on the covers. Her thin, white face looked pinched and tearful.

The doctor was present for just five minutes. He talked to Karen, administered a mild sedative and suggested a warm bath followed by a spell in bed. Her father declined a sedative for himself, opting instead for a hot shower and a cup of tea.

‘She’s a lovely girl,’ said the policewoman as Jill led Karen upstairs to the bathroom. Two constables had made a quick inspection of the excavation spot before the older one had returned to the house. Her younger colleague remained outside watching the site, sheltering from the pouring rain in the garden shed. She had spoken to her headquarters by radio, and then talked to Karen and the doctor before he left.

‘What do you think?’ Philip asked, once his daughter was out of the room.

The policewoman shrugged. ‘Can’t say. There is still some old rug or carpet visible, but it’s impossible to say how much. We’ll just wait until the forensic team and the officer in charge arrives.’

‘It could be entirely innocent, I suppose. There are meant to be remains from an old battle all around here.’

‘But they wouldn’t have wrapped the body in a carpet, sir,’ she answered. ‘It’s likely to be quite recent. But as I’ve said, it’s not worth speculating at present.’ She took a cup of tea out to her colleague. The rain was falling more heavily now.

* * *

It was falling in torrents as Detective Chief Inspector Sophie Allen stood gazing out from her office window. Her hands were thrust deep into the pockets of her fashionable cardigan. The weather matched her current mood, which was somewhat dark and brooding. She stared at the view stretched out below her second floor window: deserted pathways awash with water. After all, it was a Saturday morning. Who would want to come to work on a morning like this, unless they had to? Well, she’d only called in to collect some paperwork to take home. There was no point in planning any outdoor activities on a morning like this. The door opened and an administrative assistant walked confidently into the room, only to stop suddenly when he realised that the small office was not empty. Sophie looked round.

‘Sorry, ma’am. The light wasn’t on, so I didn’t think anyone was here.’ The young man hesitated, apparently unsure what to do next. He waved the single sheet of paper that he held in his hand. ‘The chief’s office asked me to put a copy on your desk ready for Monday. Last month’s provisional figures.’

Sophie merely nodded, so the young man dropped the paper on the desk, then backed towards the door. ‘Do you want me to put the light on, ma’am?’ he asked.

Sophie sighed. ‘You might as well. I’d better have some light so I don’t take home the wrong report.’ Before she could return her gaze to the damp scene outside, her telephone rang. She picked it up and listened to the message. As she listened, she stood taller, her green eyes opened wider and the frown vanished. She played with an earring and pushed a few loose strands of pale hair back behind her ear.

‘No, I’ll go myself,’ she said. ‘Who’s there at the moment?’ She listened. ‘Get back to them. I shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. And arrange for a forensic team, will you? Make sure there’s an outdoor specialist included. They can move in as soon as the pathologist has finished. Until I decide what we’re dealing with, we treat it as suspicious and do it properly.’

She replaced the receiver, swung her waterproof jacket from the back of her chair and hurried out of the room.

* * *

Water dripped from trees and bushes, and poured from the gutters. It ran in rivulets down the windowpanes at the rear of the house, obscuring the view to the garden so that everything looked distorted and out of focus. The traditional “April showers” had arrived with a vengeance. The wind was gaining strength, plucking some twigs and a few early leaves from some of the garden trees. A couple of these blew onto the windowpanes, where they stuck as if glued on by some mischievous child.

The family, and the neighbours, watched from their various windows as the police team arrived by degrees. First, another pair of uniformed constables, then several groups of plainclothes officers, followed by the forensic squad who erected a tent-like structure over the area where Karen had made her macabre discovery. It was clear who was in charge: the middle-aged woman wearing pink wellington boots, which clashed somewhat with her olive-green waterproof jacket and trousers.

The find was devastating for Philip and Jill Freeman. They weren’t horrified in the same way as their daughter. Instead they felt a deep and sad unease that their new home, their dream paradise, had been so swiftly and utterly changed. It had become tainted by what their garden had revealed.

The gloom and despondency in the house and garden seemed to establish itself as each hour passed. In a brief flashback, Philip had realised that the skeletal hand was only half the size of Karen’s. The thought haunted and appalled him.

* * *

‘It’s a curious sort of job this, isn’t it, Sophie?’ The speaker stood under the awning looking at the severed hand, now wrapped in plastic, lying on a shallow tray. He turned again to the woman who stood beside him.

‘What do you mean by job? This particular crime? Or this line of work?’ Sophie Allen had often worked with Benny Goodall, but their friendship stretched back much further to a time when they’d been housemates while at university. Sophie had been studying law and Benny medicine. He was Dorset’s senior pathologist, and Sophie had sometimes wondered whether he did nothing in his life but wait to be called to another murder scene. But she couldn’t judge him harshly, considering how her mood had lifted on receiving her own call an hour earlier. We’re both just a little too macabre, she thought.

‘My job. Routine medical work most of the time. Often utterly tedious, working by the book, and following procedures set in stone. But this type of nasty deed . . .’ he waved his hand, ‘it’s grimly interesting. I know it’s a bit nightmarish, but it’s fascinating at the same time.’

Sophie looked at Goodall as he stood in the liquid ooze, his wellington boots caked in mud. He had a lively gleam in his eye.

‘I hope you didn’t say anything like that within earshot of the family, Benny. They’ll be shocked enough as it is. I wouldn’t want them going over the edge.’

‘No, no, no. Only the proper official manner to members of the public. Now, do you want to take a closer look? I can’t do any more until we free the rest of the skeleton and get it back to my place.’

Sophie nodded to the SOCO unit who started to clear the soil from the stump of the buddleia and dig around the damp and malodorous rug. The butterfly bush was cut off at ground level, and soil was carefully removed from its roots and deposited in bins for later examination. There were frequent pauses while photographs were taken.

Soon the disintegrating remains of the rug were exposed, revealing a skeleton, complete apart from a missing hand. Roots from the shrub grew down through the ribcage. The skeleton was small.

‘Young boy. Probably about six or seven years old,’ Benny said, watching the progress of the forensic unit with interest.

Sophie merely nodded. She was concentrating, trying to fix the image so that she could recall it later. There was little smell, none of the putrefying odours associated with a more recently decayed corpse.

‘How long do you think he’s been there?’ she asked finally.

Dave Nash, the senior forensic officer, replied. ‘A long time, I’d guess. Possibly twenty years or more.’

‘What?’

‘Not much doubt about it. That bush has been pruned back hard several times, but its stump and root system are undisturbed. I’d guess that it was planted here as a young shrub, placed deliberately on top of the body. You can count the growth rings yourself. It’s got to be about that long, give or take a few years.’

Sophie looked again at the stump. Nash was right. The top section of the bush, which lay off to one side, had obviously been cut back on several occasions. ‘Is there any other evidence to support that length of time? Other than the growth rings?’

‘Just circumstantial at present. The state of decay of the rug. The consistency of the surrounding soil. We can’t confirm until we get everything back to the lab. As you can see, we’re keeping all of the soil for examination. Once we’ve removed the body, we’ll take the soil from directly beneath it. It may have residues from the body.’

‘Was he clothed do you think?’ asked Sophie.

‘Almost impossible to say at the moment. Any clothes he was wearing would have decayed along with the rug. But there might be trace residues of clothing along with the rug debris. If so, we’ll be able to spot them in the lab analysis.’

‘How do you plan to get him out?’

‘We’ll cut through the rest of the roots and clear the stump away. The rug looks fairly complete underneath him, even though it is half rotten. We’ll try to get a plastic sheet below it, then lift everything out in one go. If it works.’

Sophie stood looking down at the sparse remains for some time. Then she said, ‘okay, Dave. I’ll leave it to you.’ She turned to Goodall, who was just about to leave the shelter of the awning. ‘When will we know more?’

‘There’s not much to examine, so you’ll get the initial report in a few days. I may call in my friendly local bone specialist for some help. She might spot something that I’d have missed, although it could add a couple of days. But you’re in no immediate hurry for this one, are you? No one is going to be breathing down your neck after twenty years.’

Sophie stared coolly at him. ‘You know me better than that, Benny. Whoever he is, however long he’s been lying here, he’ll get my full attention. He deserves nothing less.’ She left the tent.

 

***

 

Sophie turned her back on the section of the garden that had hidden the corpse for almost a quarter of a century. Her young, ginger-haired detective sergeant stood waiting for her outside the awning.

‘So this is where we start thinking, Barry,’ she said. ‘Why would someone bury the body of a young child in such a way?’

‘Manslaughter? Murder? It’s got to be something like that, ma’am,’ Marsh answered. ‘If he’d died of natural causes he wouldn’t have been wrapped in a rug and dropped into a hole in the garden. And my guess is that the bush was deliberately planted over the body to prevent it being disturbed. Whoever did it had a strong reason for keeping it secret. I wouldn’t have thought that poverty would have been a problem either, not in a house this size. The owners must have been pretty well-off by any standards.’

Sophie was silent. Then she said, ‘I don’t like cases like this. They don’t fit the normal patterns — you know, husband, wife or jealous lover. But when it’s a youngster I get this creeping sensation that seems to warn me to be doubly careful. I’m getting it now. But there’s little we can do until we get the full details back from forensics. Once we know more precisely when he was put there, we can start looking through the missing-persons records.’

‘What are you going to tell the press?’

‘Just the bare facts at present. I’ll release more as and when required, once we have the forensic and pathology reports.’

Barry Marsh looked at his boss as they stood in the rain. Her eyes looked dark, almost black. Several droplets of water trickled slowly down her pale cheeks.

‘You look worried, ma’am.’

‘It’s unusual, Barry. There are no set procedures for a body that’s been undiscovered for this long. We’ll follow the usual procedures as far as seems sensible, but after twenty years it’s almost an historical crime. The chances of getting witnesses, clues or any useful statements are pretty remote.’ She paused. ‘But that’s not what bothers me. I just hope that it’s a one-off and that there aren’t any more.’

She turned on her heel and walked back towards the house, with Barry Marsh following.

* * *

Sophie nursed the mug of tea in her hands before taking another sip. She looked at Jill and Philip Freeman, who were sitting together opposite her on a sofa. Both looked pale and drawn. The afternoon light was beginning to fade and Jill reached out to switch on a table lamp beside her. The soft light seemed to help them relax a little.

‘The body will undergo further pathology procedures and all of the soil will be sent for complete forensic examination. They’ll sift it thoroughly for clues and analyse anything they find.’

‘Twenty years, you say? That’s unbelievable,’ whispered Jill.

‘But likely, from what we know at present. We counted the rings on the stump. It didn’t look as though it had ever been disturbed, in which case the body has been there as long as the bush.’ She took another sip of tea. ‘I know you’ve only been in the house a few months. What do you know of its previous history?’

‘Not a great deal,’ responded Philip. ‘We bought it at Easter. It had been empty for some time. We decided not to move in until we’d refitted the kitchen, rewired all of the electrics and got the plumbing done.’

‘Did you do all of that yourself?’ asked Sophie.

‘No, just the kitchen, and I did that with a friend who’s a builder. We had the wiring and plumbing done professionally. And we’ve just finished this room. We plan to work our way slowly through the house, room by room.’

‘What kind of state was it in?’

‘Poor. It was very run down. The roof and exterior walls were fine, though all the timbers needed a lick of paint. But nothing had been done to the inside for years. As far as I know there was an absentee owner who rented it out. It was put on the market when she died.’

‘You don’t know who inherited it? The person who decided to put it on the market?’

‘No. It was all handled by a solicitor.’

‘It was a local solicitor,’ said Jill. We’ve probably got the name somewhere if you need it.’

‘Yes, that would be useful. DS Marsh here will get it from you. How is your daughter now?’

‘She’s asleep at the moment. She was in shock, so the doctor gave her a sedative. You don’t need to speak to her, do you?’

‘I would like to, if you agree. I don’t mean just now, I wouldn’t dream of disturbing her sleep. But she may want some reassurance and, once she recovers, she might want to know what we are doing. It will help her come to terms with it. I’ll call round in a couple of days, once I have some news. Would that be alright? We’d really like to have a quick look round your house, if you’ll let us. We need to get a feel for the place, to see the rooms and their positions in relation to each other. It won’t take long, I’m sure.’

They started in the large, south-facing kitchen. Its window looked out onto the back garden and the forensic team still at work. The kitchen had a walk-in pantry and a utility room. The two doors were set beside each other in a wall to one side. Sophie glanced inside the pantry and Barry looked into the utility room. He called to her.

‘Ma’am! There’s a door at the far end.’

‘Steps to the cellar,’ explained Philip Freeman, who was standing behind the DCI. ‘The only thing we keep there are some storage boxes that we haven’t got around to opening yet. The door’s locked but there’s a key in it. The light switch is on your left just on the other side of the door.’

Marsh led the way down the wooden steps and flipped the switch. A dim bulb shed a poor light on a grubby-looking room. The three of them stood on an area paved with plain concrete slabs. The far half of the cellar was not floored and consisted of hard-packed earth. Several sealed packing cases stood beside them, set against the wall. The rest of the cellar was empty, its brick walls showing remnants of a pale, possibly white paint. The air smelled musty and old.

‘It doesn’t seem damp in here at all,’ the owner volunteered. ‘The boxes are as dry as when we first moved in.’

Sophie nodded. She looked around her, then indicated that she had seen enough.

The rest of the ground floor, a dining room and study, was spacious and well furnished. After a quick look in each room, the trio moved to the upper floor where they had a peek inside each of the four bedrooms, including the one in which Karen was sleeping. A pull-down loft ladder at the far end of the landing allowed them easy access to a sizable attic, floored and neatly stacked with boxes.

‘They’re all ours,’ Philip explained. ‘It was empty when we moved in. In fact the whole house was empty. There was nothing left in any of the rooms. One of the neighbours told us that the owners used a house-clearing agency, and they’d been told to either sell or dump everything.’

Sophie turned to Marsh. ‘It might be worth following that up, Barry. We’ll talk about it later.’ They returned to the kitchen, where Jill Freeman joined them. Sophie was about to ask her for more details about the house when her mobile phone rang. It was Dave Nash, the forensic team leader, still outside. She listened, keeping her expression blank and her eyes fixed on her sergeant’s face. She nodded to the Freemans and went quickly out of the house into the garden. Barry Marsh struggled to keep up with her. There was no doubt now. It had to be murder, surely? She entered the tent to a line of grim faces.

‘Are you sure?’ she asked.

Dave Nash was standing at the bottom of the pit, to one side of it. He nodded. Sophie moved to the edge, peering at the place Nash was indicating. There lay the unmistakable shape, now partly uncovered, of another decayed rug, similar to the previous one. Nash flipped it aside to reveal a small set of arm bones, neatly folded across a child’s ribcage. A second body, lying hidden under the first one.

‘This one’s a young girl, Sophie.’ Benny Goodall’s normally cheerful face was pale and set. He said nothing else. What else was there to say?

 

Chapter 2: Local History

Monday morning

 

For once, the police investigation proceeded smoothly. It was purposeful, but there was none of the tense urgency that usually accompanied the discovery of a murder victim. In this case there was no need for rapid action to prevent the perpetrator from slipping away. Sophie had decided she had three avenues open to her: tracing the ownership history of the property, sifting the forensic evidence, and examining old missing-persons’ files, once the year of death was confirmed, assuming that records went back that far. She stayed in overall control and, as usual, liaised with Benny Goodall, allocating the missing person trace to Barry Marsh, her second-in-command, and the property investigation to Rae Gregson. She also had access to some local Dorchester detectives and clerical staff to aid with immediate investigations. Police resources would not stretch to a larger team until a lead opened up. The twenty-year-old crime was not high profile. Local Dorset newspapers would probably carry the story on their front pages, but the nationals would tuck it away inside, if they bothered to report it at all. Sophie presumed that would change as further details came to light.

Sophie gave the local background research to Rae Gregson, the most recent addition to her violent crime unit. Rae was a keen and thorough investigator, willing to put in the extra effort that often yielded the clue that would crack a problem. Sophie knew that Rae loved digging in records and documents, fleshing out the bare bones of an investigation, exactly what would be needed in this case, with its lack of witnesses and current evidence.

Rae set to work immediately. She visited the Estate Agency that had handled the sale of the property. The young receptionist at the office was cheerful and helpful, but Rae thought the manager’s surliness was due to more than just a Monday morning hangover. He kept her waiting for almost ten minutes before seeing her, despite having no other visitors, and his answers to her questions were monosyllabic. She forced herself to restrain her impatience, and was finally rewarded with a look at the file on the Freemans’ property. She noted the address of the vendor. It confirmed what Jill had told them two days before. The house had been sold on behalf of a solicitor’s practice in Salisbury.

‘Now, Mr Adams, I’d like to pick your brains if I may,’ she said lightly. ‘I’d expect someone in your position, as the manager of a local estate agent’s, to know a little about the history of properties in the local area. You might be able to save me a great deal of work. I need to identify the occupants of that house for some time back. I suspect that, in recent years at least, it saw a rapid turnover of tenants. Can you help?’

‘We didn’t handle the lets on that property,’ he said.

‘Fine. In that case can you tell me who did?’

‘No. I don’t know. Its recent sale is the only time we’ve had to deal with it. I can’t help you.’ He clasped his fingers and rested his chin on them, looking at her coldly.

So that’s it, thought Rae. He’s probably read me. Prejudiced bastard. She realised she wouldn’t get any more from him, thanked him politely and left his office.

On her way out she spoke to the young receptionist. ‘Is he always like that?’

‘Oh yes,’ came the reply. ‘Don’t think it’s you. I’m only temping here. No one lasts more than a few weeks in the job, as far as I can tell. He used to own this business, but was forced to sell to one of the big chains during the property crash. He’s resented it ever since. I don’t think he’ll last much longer.’

Rae was annoyed with herself. It was a problem she shared with many other transgender people. She assumed that any rudeness and friction directed her way was due to prejudice against her trans nature. Yet, more often than not, it was just some grumpy person who was rude and unpleasant to everyone.

‘Is there anyone else whose brains I can pick about the history of the houses in the area? There’s no other estate agent, is there?’

The receptionist thought for a while. ‘There’s a lady who worked here for a long time. I can remember chatting to her when I worked here once before. She retired a couple of months ago. She’ll be as good as anyone. I don’t know exactly where she lives, somewhere behind the High Street I think, but her name is Margaret Court.’

‘Like the tennis player?’ asked Rae.

‘Yes. And she played tennis herself as a youngster. She’d even won some cups at the local club, so she told me.’

Rae borrowed the local telephone directory, and quickly found an address for a John Court in Honeywell Lane. This was a side street running at right angles to the High Street. There was a good chance that this was the correct address. She thanked the young girl for her time and left. She walked the hundred yards or so to the junction with Honeywell Lane. The rain had eased, so she left her umbrella rolled up in her shoulder bag. Number forty-seven was at the end of a smart terrace. An elderly man was working in the well-tended garden, putting out some summer bedding plants. Rae halted at the gate. He looked up as she approached and smiled.

‘Mr Court?’ she asked.

‘Yes. How can I help you?’

‘I’m looking for a Mrs Margaret Court who used to work in the estate agent’s office. Have I got the right address?’

‘Yes. That’s my wife. I’ll get her for you if you’d like to come in. Who shall I say is calling?’

‘DC Rae Gregson, Dorset police. I’d like to pick her brains if she’ll let me.’

The man opened the gate. ‘She’ll enjoy that. She’s a fount of local knowledge. I’ll take you round the back if you don’t mind. My feet are a bit muddy.’

Rae followed him around the side of the house to the back door, where he ushered her in ahead of him.

‘Margaret!’ he called. ‘Someone from the police to see you.’

She heard a woman’s voice, and the man turned back to her. ‘She’ll be through in a minute. She’s tidying up. We had a visit from our grandchildren over the weekend. Would you like a coffee? I’m about to put the kettle on.’

‘That would be great, thank you.’

He pulled a chair out for her at the table, and put down a plate of biscuits. Margaret Court came into the kitchen just as he finished pouring three mugs of coffee. She was a tall, slim woman with an alert expression. She looked a little worried. Rae introduced herself and began to explain why she had called.

‘I visited the estate agent’s office to see if they could give me information about the previous owners of a house in the area. One of the staff recommended that I visit you.’

‘Well, I hope I can help, but I’m not sure how. What house is it you’re interested in?’

‘Finch Cottage. I need to identify as many occupants as possible.’

‘How recent?’ The woman looked puzzled.

‘For at least the last twenty-five years if I can.’

‘We saw the activity up there yesterday,’ Mrs Court replied. ‘We took our grandchildren to the park after lunch. They were fascinated by all of the cars, vans and flashing lights. People were saying that a body had been found. Is that right?’

‘Yes. I can’t give you any further details except that it had been there a long time. That is why we need information. Were you still working at the agency when the house was sold last June?’

‘Yes. It was one of the last sales I was involved with before I left. A lovely house, and nice gardens too. They were a pleasant family who bought it. I dealt with some of the paperwork.’

Rae sipped her coffee. ‘I’ve seen all of the official records at the agency, but do you know any other details? Anything about the people who lived there while it was being let out? The previous owners? Anything would help. I’m trying to build up as full a picture of its history as possible.’

The older lady nibbled at a chocolate biscuit. ‘It was empty for about six months before it was sold last spring. Before that it had been rented by three families — furnished, I think. But in each case the lease was only temporary. I can’t give you much in the way of detail because we didn’t handle the lets. This is just what I know from general chatter.’

‘I’ll need to write this down,’ said Rae, opening her notebook.

Margaret Court sipped her coffee. She talked slowly, as if checking each memory as it came to light. The three lets had each been for periods of between six and eighteen months, administered by an agency in London that specialised in homes for long-stay visitors from abroad. As far as Margaret Court knew, two of the lets had been to foreign diplomats and one to a visiting academic.

‘But these were all in the past eight years,’ she added. ‘Further back than that is a bit difficult. I’ve a feeling that it might have been owned by an actress at one time, and also the manager of a small shipping line that ran from Weymouth, but I can’t be absolutely sure. I need some time to get my thoughts together and to try and remember the rough dates. Would that be okay?’

‘Of course. You can think about it and let me know when you’re ready. I’ll come back to get the details.’ Rae finished writing and handed over her card. She saw that Margaret had been watching her.

‘You’ve taken a lot of care over your appearance,’ the older woman said. ‘I have to congratulate you. One of our nephews is trying to be a woman. He’s not half as convincing as you. He’s called Andrea now.’

‘Is this relevant?’ Rae responded, irritated. ‘I’m not a he, and I haven’t ever truly been one. I’m ashe, as your Andrea is. Maybe it’s time you digested that.’ How much longer would it take for people just to accept her and other women like her without the need to make some comment? It was getting infuriating. If this woman had someone transgender in her family, surely she should know that endless comments, no matter how well-meaning, aren’t welcome.

‘I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s just that Andrea struggles so much to fit in. And no matter how hard I try, I keep remembering the boy he was.’

‘Probably an unhappy boy,’ Rae replied. ‘Even though he would have tried desperately not to let it show, it would have been there, I know.’ She closed her notebook and put it in her bag. She looked at her watch. ‘Thanks for your help, and please get in touch if you remember anything else.’

She stood up, turned and walked out of the room more quickly than usual. Had she been too sharp with Mrs Court? Well, it was too late now.

What should she do next? She drove back to the police station to continue checking on the house’s history by phone. She had enough information now to get started.

* * *

Barry Marsh was back at Finch Cottage checking on the searches that were going on. Ground-penetrating radar had been brought in, but it had not shown any other bodies buried in the garden. He’d brought in the dog unit that had proved so useful the previous year in the search of Charlie Duff’s land in Poole, but this too had revealed nothing. The bodies of the two young children were the only ones there. Thank God for that, he thought. Saturday’s discoveries had been grim enough, without more being found. He watched the technical team pack their kit away, then walked across to join Dave Nash in the forensic tent. A few bags of soil from the rudimentary graves were still stacked neatly to one side, awaiting transport to the labs. Barry had watched the large bulk of materials being dispatched earlier. It would take the forensic team some time to work their way through the soil removed from the immediate area of the double grave. He wondered if the process could be automated in some way. Probably there was no substitute, in the early stages anyway, to manually sifting the soil, with observant people looking for anything out of place.

Marsh returned to the incident room at Dorchester police station. The computer systems should have been readied by now, prepared to start receiving the mass of data that would inevitably accumulate. In the boss’s absence, he would need to check that the administrative staff had structured the systems properly. DCI Allen had gone to London mid-morning, but had said nothing about the reason for her visit. His was not to reason why.

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