‘Good holiday, Simon? Sun and sea?’


‘Thanks. North Norfolk. Snow and sea.’


‘Good God, man, you could have got that staying at home. Morning, Sergeant.’


Nick de Silva’s voice boomed out cheerfully as they entered the bungalow among the forensics in white coveralls, but as they walked through into the small bedroom, he fell silent. Among so many of his gung-ho, sometimes ghoulish pathologist colleagues, Nick was well known for his care once in the presence of the dead. ‘This is a corpse,’ Serrailler had heard him say one time to a lecture hall full of police and students. ‘This is a victim, and unless it is proved otherwise, it is an innocent victim. But whether innocent or guilty, it is the body of a fellow human being. Treat such bodies as you would treat one of your own loved ones and as you would wish to be treated yourself.’


Now, he looked at Simon and sighed. Forensics evaporated to take advantage of a break.


The chair was in front of a mirrored dressing table. Serrailler saw the reflections – Nick’s, his own. The woman’s.


‘He put her there so she could watch.’


Nick nodded. He leaned forward, touching nothing, and looked closely at the woman’s neck. The piece of electrical flex was wound round it three times and pulled tight and the loose ends had been tied to the chair back with several knots.


‘Reef knots,’ Simon said. ‘Unusual?’


Nick shrugged. ‘Statistically, probably not significant but you’ll obviously check.’


She wore a pink fleece nightdress which was rucked up to her knees. Her feet were bare. Her head hung forwards, eyes bulging.


Simon left the pathologist to his job and went slowly round the bedroom. New paintwork, new wallpaper, new carpet. Wardrobe with a few clothes on hangers, boxes full of more clothes below. Nothing had been disturbed so far as he could see. Bedside table. Lamp. Pack of tissues. Glasses beside their open case. Nail-clippers. Pack of prescription tablets for arthritis with a few already removed. Neat. Everything was neat.


In the kitchen, crockery and cutlery were in drawers and cupboards. A few things in the draining rack. Tea towel folded over the rail. Lino tiles were spotless.


DS Steph Mead, aka Mrs Ben Vanek, was in the hall.


‘Guv, the front door was on a chain and a security bolt. Not touched. Entrance was by the sitting-room window which also has a bolt but it hadn’t been dropped down. I wonder if she’d forgotten. Seems unlikely.’


‘Maybe not. Hadn’t she recently moved in?’


‘Day before yesterday.’


‘Then she might not have got the hang of all the security fastenings.’


‘I’ll get a check on whoever fitted them and how they were left. She wouldn’t have had a window open in this weather.’


‘What do we know about her?’


‘Mrs Elinor Sanders, aged eighty, widow, moved down from Newcastle where she’d lived for fifty years. Apparently she has a relative in Lafferton but we haven’t an address yet.’


‘When forensics have finished look through everything to find one – that’s urgent.’


‘Guv.’


‘Neighbours?’


‘Only four have moved in so far. We’ve spoken to all of them briefly. The lady at number 1 saw her last night – had a coffee together. She’s extremely upset.’


‘Questioned?’


‘I didn’t want to go in too hard yet, guv, I don’t think she could cope.’


‘Get the doc in to her now, we’ve got to have everything she can tell us asap.’


‘Man in number 8’s a bit of a curtain twitcher, knows all about Mrs Sanders moving in. Knows about everything.’


‘Odd – men aren’t usually interested but he might prove useful. Let’s hope he’s an insomniac.’ He went into the front room. The curtains were still drawn but he lifted a corner carefully and looked out. Two men were taking a short cut across the grass towards the bungalow opposite.


‘How the hell did they get under the wire – bloody Gazette. We’ll have the TV vans and the men with furry mikes here any minute.’


He shot out of the front door, yelling across. ‘Get off there, you should bloody well know better, this is a crime scene, yes, Baxter, you, and if I catch you lifting a finger to any of these door bells I’ll have you in for trespass. You know the rules, press conference later, now bugger off.’


His voice was less angry than his words. One of the reporters raised an arm in acknowledgement. Two minutes later, they were driving off. Simon phoned the station press officer to organise a conference for noon, then went back into the bungalow.


Nick de Silva was peering at the flex round the dead woman’s neck, touching it lightly with his gloved finger. He straightened up as Serrailler came in.


‘She died somewhere between midnight and five this morning – I’ll know more when I get her in. Strangulation, obviously. No evidence of sexual assault, no other injuries visible . . . there are some faint bruises coming out on her hands. She might have tried to hold him off, but she couldn’t put up much of a fight – she’s old and she isn’t a very big woman, and there’s marked osteoarthritis in the hands and finger joints. Her grip wouldn’t be strong. The boys and girls will be back in here once we’ve moved her but at a glance he was very clean and tidy indeed. Knew what he was about. No mess, no obvious traces. He’ll have worn gloves, possibly left his shoes outside . . . doesn’t look like any sort of burglary – she’d left a couple of rings there on the dressing table. Hasn’t touched them. Rest of the place?’


Simon shook his head.


‘No, this is just killing for killing’s sake. Poor woman.’ Nick touched his finger gently to her cheek, his face tender. ‘She can go now. Sooner I have her on the table the better.’


Steph Mead stood aside as the pathologist went out. ‘Forensics say they’re doing the kitchen next.’


‘What about the neighbour?’


‘Daughter’s on her way, GP says he can’t call till after morning surgery, doesn’t do many house visits, can she be taken in there?’


Simon exploded. ‘Tell him no, she’s in no fit state, she needs a medical check before we can question her and we have to start that within the next hour. Kick his arse.’


Steph made a face and went out as Simon’s phone rang.


‘Simon, I presume you’re SIO on this murder? Brief me please.’


‘Morning, ma’am.’


The Chief Constable had been on sick leave for several months and there had been rumours that she would move from there seamlessly into retirement. She had not and once back she seemed to have doubled her old energy and focus, was up to speed with every detail in every corner of her force and had dished out timely warnings to any slackers and coasters. Simon got on well with her, partly because he genuinely liked and respected her, partly because he had worked hard to do so.


‘I wonder if you should hold off a press conference until this neighbour has seen a doctor and been cleared to talk to you?’


Paula Devenish was a stickler for protocol and under everyday circumstances would never presume to give instructions to an SIO, but Serrailler knew well enough that a suggestion with a question mark at the end from the CC should be treated as an order.


‘Agreed. I’m trying to get the doctor here, but he isn’t being very cooperative.’


‘Go and fetch him. Don’t give him an option.’


‘I can’t arrest him, ma’am.’


‘Of course you can’t. You won’t need to.’


Twenty-three


THE RELUCTANT GP had arrived in a patrol car, spent two minutes taking Rosemary Poole’s blood pressure and pulse, written a prescription for diazepam and been driven back. Harry Fletcher had been working out at Starly but dropped everything and was in the kitchen making tea and taking mugs out to every member of the force. Rosemary had a cup untouched beside her. Karen was sitting up close.


‘How do you feel now, Mum?’


Rosemary shook her head. She was weaving her fingers together in her lap.


‘You ought to eat something.’ Harry came in from the kitchen. ‘Just a biscuit. Or a square or two of chocolate. Have you got any? Shall I pop down the road and get some?’


Rosemary shook her head again, her fingers moving ceaselessly. Harry went back to the kettle.


‘Mrs Poole, I’m DS Steph Mead. I know this is very hard and I do understand what a terrible shock you’ve had. But now the doctor says you’re up to it, I need to ask you a few questions. We have to find who did this dreadful thing and you may have seen or heard something, anything – that could be vital to us.’


Rosemary shook her head to and fro several times. Karen took her hand and held it tightly.


‘I know. I wish I could leave you quietly for the rest of the day to try and recover and I promise I’ll keep my questions to the absolute minimum and then leave you with your family. But I have to do this now. Do you understand?’


Some minutes passed in silence. Then Rosemary gave a slight sigh and looked up.


‘Yes, I do. I’ll do my best. I owe it to her. She was a very nice woman.’


‘Mum, listen –’


‘I said I’d do it. I will do it. Then I’d like the police to go.’


‘Of course.’


Harry appeared in the doorway again. ‘Anyone want tea? Coffee?’


Karen glared at him but he didn’t move.


It took an hour. What Elinor and Rosemary had eaten and drunk, where they had sat, exactly what time they had parted. After that, Rosemary recounted in full detail her own movements in watching television, making a last drink and getting ready for bed. She spoke clearly but with long pauses, she wept, she occasionally gripped her daughter’s hand. But she was brave and determined.


‘I owe it to her. She was nice. I thought we were going to be good friends and neighbours.’


‘Have you any idea, roughly, when you went to sleep, Mrs Poole? Did you maybe glance at the clock as you switched off your lamp?’


‘I always do. It was twenty past eleven.’


‘Did you go to sleep at once or did you lie thinking for a while?’


‘I lay feeling very happy that I’d met Elinor Sanders. I think she was happy too. She’d moved a long way, you know – Newcastle. It isn’t easy.’


‘How long do you think you lay awake, Mrs Poole? Minutes? Half an hour?’


‘No, no, not as long as that. I drop off quite quickly.’


‘Ten minutes?’


‘It wouldn’t be more.’


‘And did you wake during the night at any time?’


‘It was cold last night . . . well, it’s been bitter, hasn’t it? The heating had been playing up so it was probably the cold that woke me.’


‘What time was that?’


‘Ten past two. I put on the light, you see. I went to fetch an extra blanket but I couldn’t find it . . . a lot of things are still packed. So I just refilled my hot-water bottle.’


‘Did you look out of the window? The kitchen window or your bedroom?’


‘Yes, I did. I just looked round the corner of my curtains. I wanted to see if it was snowing again.’


Rosemary closed her eyes and her head nodded forwards for a moment.


‘Leave it there, Sergeant, she’s had enough. She’s exhausted.’ Harry Fletcher had been standing in the doorway but now he came into the room and put his hand on his mother-in-law’s shoulder. She opened her eyes and looked at the hand, then up into his face.


‘Harry.’


‘You shouldn’t have to put up with this any longer, I was just saying. You’ve told them everything.’


‘Mr Fletcher, I’m sorry, but I do have more things to ask so I’d be grateful if you wouldn’t interfere. Perhaps Mrs Poole could do with a cup of tea?’


Rosemary shook her head. ‘It’s all right, Harry. Go and make a pot of tea.’


She had little more to add. She had slept quite well, woken once more and gone to the bathroom, but returned to bed without looking out of any window and slept again at once. In the morning, she had woken a bit later than usual.


‘But the heating was working again so the place was nice and warm. It had been playing up a bit, you know, like the electrics and the plumbing. That electrician came round, as he promised.’


‘How many times has he called on you?’


‘The first time I didn’t let him in. Elinor let him in, but I didn’t. I don’t know why. He was all right. The second time he told me how much pride he took in his work. I believed him too, he was determined to get it right.’


‘How long did he stay with you, Rosemary?’


She closed her eyes again. Replaying the scene, doorbell ringing, putting on her slippers, the man standing there again. Not smiling.


‘Funny that,’ she said suddenly. ‘He never smiles.’


‘The electrician?’


‘He’s a perfectly nice fellow, very polite. Just never smiles. He didn’t stop long – ten minutes maybe? Checked the fuses and things in the cupboard, all over again.’


‘When he left this house did you see him go to Mrs Sanders’s bungalow?’


‘No, I closed the door, it was very cold, you know.’


‘I’ve nearly finished but will you just take a minute to think very carefully? Did you hear anything in the night? Any sounds at all, usual sort of sounds, a car maybe? Or anything unusual? Did you hear any doors banging, a window being tapped . . . footsteps? You said you woke twice and went to the bathroom once. Are you quite certain you didn’t see anything – anything at all?’


‘Tea,’ Harry said, coming in with the tray and setting it down with a bang on the table beside Rosemary’s chair.


Steph Mead shook her head, looking all the time very carefully at Rosemary Poole.


She had leaned her head back and closed her eyes.


‘You’re worn out, you don’t have to put up with any more of this,’ Harry said, and turned to the DS angrily, ‘Can’t you see how she’s feeling? If she’s taken ill I’ll be blaming you. It’s time you left.’


Steph Mead hesitated, half inclined to lay down the law, send him out of the room with an order not to come back. But he was right about his mother-in-law. She had gone ash-pale, and looked completely drained. Steph stood up.


‘We’ll come back later.’


‘Try not to,’ Harry said.

***

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