Killing Me Softlyby Marjorie Eccles
"With her trademark assurance, Eccles takes her time delving nto her characters'preoccupations before introducing the murder, and her elegant prose credibly links her three disparate plots of drugs, murder and kidnapping to create a vivid picture of small-town interactions." Publishers Weekly
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In the quiet flat, high above the sleeping town, Detective Superintendent Gil Mayo was burning the midnight oil, wading through the pile of official waffle which he'd brought home to work on while he waited for news. He'd been relying on strong coffee and Haydn to help keep him awake, turning the volume down out of consideration for Alex, who was sleeping in the next room, but in the end he switched the music off. At that level, it was sending him to sleep. And better not to listen to old Haydn's glorious sounds at all than at half-cock. He sat back, rubbed his temples and yawned as the hands of the bracket clock on the mantelshelf reached half-past two and the rest of his clocks struck and chimed the half-hour, more or less in unison.
He should have heard something, they should have rung by now. But after the vibrations of the last chime died, nothing broke the silence but the rattle of rain against the window.
Not even the weather was being co-operative. Mid-February, the deadest part of the year, a bloody awful month made worse by the unspeakable weather that had set in since Christmas and showed no signs of disappearing. It had rained all night, and by morning the river would have risen by several inches, and though it hadn't yet reached danger level, it couldn't be far off. Several people were keeping an anxious eye on the situation, none more so than Mayo. He had good reason: a surveillance operation which was going on from one of the few derelict warehouses not yet turned into luxury apartments under the Riverside Redevelopment scheme. There'd been a tip-off,convincing enough for him to have put his DI, Abigail Moon, down there with the support team and half the CID. What the devil was happening?
Nothing, was the short answer.
Abigail's neck ached, she was fighting sleep and boredom, cramped into the cold, stuffy car with Deeley, Farrar and Jenny Platt. The rain beat endlessly against the windscreen, and they'd long since run out of anything new to say.
She wriggled her shoulders to ease the tension. 'Crack the window a bit more, somebody, will you? Last time I was in a vehicle so steamed up was on my first date.'
Farrar laughed dutifully and Deeley amiably wound down his window another inch, then tipped up his flask for any last dregs of coffee. There weren't any. He shifted restlessly. 'Wish we'd brought some sandwiches.'
'You'll survive.' Jenny Platt aimed a telling glance at his well-packed suit, his thick thighs. The squad heavy, Deeley, looking like somebody's minder, the good-humoured butt of CID jokes. 'Two fish, wasn't it, with chips, before we set out?'
'Have a heart, that was hours ago. I'm not a flippin' camel, for God's sake!'
Deeley hated being on obs, especially in a car. He'd rather get stuck in, any day, action being what he was best at. Or at least, watching from the old warehouse with the rest, keeping in radio contact with the DI and the bods in the support team, also parked nearby.
'Here we go,' said Farrar suddenly. Everyone was instantly on the alert, but it was only a shadow of blown rain, wishful thinking.
The second night of observation, and not a peep out of anybody.
'It would be just too beautiful if we got it right, first time, but why do I feel somebody's having us on?' Abigail had demanded of Mayo before they'd left the office that night.
Mayo, too, had been short on sleep recently. 'We're on a hiding to nothing most of the time, these days,' he said gloomily. 'They're running rings round us, out there. But spoof or not, we ignore this and that's just the time something'll happen. Keep at it. Whatever happens, tonight finishes it.'
Mayo couldn't fairly sanction any more overtime, which was galling, but he had the ACC (Crime) on his back over this. The operation had already cost more than anyone cared to think of in terms of time and resources, and Sheering wasn't renowned for high tolerance where budgets were concerned, this not excluded.
But not even he could shut his eyes to what was happening. The drug scene was here, as everywhere else. Small time, compared with the big cities, but more than enough for Lavenstock. Alerted by a sudden upsurge in drug-related crimes in the area housebreaking, mugging, you name it vigilance had been stepped up and the Force Area Drug Squad had been called in.
Tonight's observation was targeted on the unstructured group of old houses further along the river bank, on one of those with their feet almost in the water. The Bagots, the area was called, a kind of no man's land between the posh stretch of the river and the disused warehouses and abandoned factories scheduled for redevelopment. On their last legs, the old houses were soon to be knocked down, despite a fiercely pitched battle, developers v. conservationists, which had ended with victory to the developers. A pity, in a way. The group of workmen's cottages, varying in age from eighty years old to two hundred, were romantic-looking and picturesque, if you didn't get too near, huddled together on the river bend, contributing to current nostalgia. But no, it wasn't economic to put them in order, they were too far gone, come down they must. Meanwhile, despite leaky roofs, cockroaches and rats, they were some sort of home to those too old to have any desire to move, or those who could afford nothing better and had no choice in the matter, and to a group of disaffected, rootless young folk. It was on their shaky old house, the one that stood on its own at the end of a row, that the watch was being concentrated.
The Stockwell was only a small river, a tributary of the Avon, little more than a stream in places but always interesting, and never more varied than when it passed through Mayo's bailiwick of Lavenstock. Rising in the surrounding hills, it was for the most part a bubbling watercourse except at the point where, companion to the canal, it widened out and flowed more gently. The smarter houses at that point had moorings and little boathouses at the end of their gardens, amenities which pushed up the prices of these already much coveted, desirable residences, never mind that you couldn't navigate far in either direction: downstream, beyond where it curved around the park like a protective arm, the Stockwell narrowed again and resumed its shallow, lively course over the stones, while in its upper reaches, in the industrialized areas, it was choked with debris, and sometimes disappeared and flowed, dark and secret and unseen, along underground culverts. Still, a river aspect and a boathouse were status symbols, and remained good selling points.
Tonight, swollen with the recent rains, the river slid past them until, further along, it became turbulent, at the point where the steep, mossy, boulder-strewn banks narrowed at Clacks Mill, sweeping under the bridge and thence into the millrace. The old mill wheel, no longer working but still in situ, was two hundred years old but there was no danger that it would fall to pieces. It would see out the much newer, rustic-style bridge that straddled the race.
The trees flailed around in the wind, and the rain rattled against the windows of the mill house. In the main bedroom, Clare Wishart turned over in her sleep and stretched out her arm to the empty space beside her, half woke with a little, shuddering moan, tossed uneasily for a while, but presently turned over and slept again. Her son and daughter, in their respective bedrooms, unaware of either the wind or the rain, or the continuous muffled fall of the water, slept the sound, untroubled sleep of healthy teenagers.
Barbie Nelson, whose nightly dreams were vivid, restless and disturbing, and nobody's business but her own, lived far enough away from the river not to be worried about rising water levels. Tonight, her small flat felt snug and secure, rather than irritatingly poky as it usually did. Tonight, she was tired out. It had been a long and busy day at work and, with so much on her mind, she needed sleep without dreams. Before going to bed she'd taken a pill, and while it took effect she'd allowed herself to indulge in forbidden, deeply satisfying thoughts about the future. At last she slept peacefully, secure in the knowledge that her plans were maturing nicely.
In the afterglow of sex, Ellie Redvers was sometimes able to persuade herself that everything was going to be all right, they would work things out so that she and Tim could be together always, and not just for hidden, secret, shameful meetings. Everything would be resolved in a way that wouldn't hurt Clare, or the children.
But in the colder light of reason, she knew this wouldn't ever be possible. There was no way out of this, not without tearing everyone concerned apart, herself and Tim well, perhaps included.
He lay sprawled out beside her, his tall, loose-limbed frame completely relaxed, his sleep untroubled by what had happened that night. He should have remembered that she was sharp enough to put two and two together. But he'd shrugged his worry off on to her, then forgotten it. Nothing ever really worried Tim, or not deeply. Even now, he looked insouciant, his mouth turned up slightly at one corner, as though being charming had become so much a habit with him that he couldn't give it up, even in sleep. His head was thrown back, disguising the faint slackness of his jaw, the lids closed over the laughing eyes so that their inherent coldness could be forgotten, or ignored. His light brown hair fell over his brow in the boyish flop that women found endearing, herself not excepted.
She resisted the corny impulse to smooth it back and slid out from between the covers. Drawing on her dressing-gown, she pushed her feet into slippers and padded softly to the window. The river was still rising. Slap, slap it went against the pilings of the walkway at the bottom of the lawn. But these houses were secure from a silent invasion by water: brand, spanking new, a fashionable development facing the river and, beyond it, the canal. They'd been built above a short slope to the water's edge, a precaution against the danger of flooding, unlike the old houses huddled along the banks a few hundred yards away at the Bagots. There, it might be a different story, come morning, if the rain continued. But further along still, at the mill, they'd be safe enough: Clare, and Richie, and her god-daughter, Amy.
Ellie shivered and drew her feet up under her fleecy woollen dressing-gown, trying without much success to shut her mind to all thoughts of them by concentrating on her own reflection mirrored in the blackness of the window. A small, pale face, saved from plainness by deep brown, thickly lashed eyes above high cheekbones, and what Tim, in one of his more tender, imaginative moments, had once called a heart-stopping smile. Not the obvious picture of a woman who is systematically betraying her closest, lifelong friend, inseparable since they had met on their first day at playschool.
Clare wasn't a fool. She was well aware of Tim's women, there was no way she couldn't be. There'd been too many to hide, for too long. But she'd never, ever, suspect Ellie would she?
In her way, Ellie hadn't been much better than Tim, as far as numbers went. Fair enough, she wasn't committed to anyone and she'd always drawn the line at breaking up a relationship. Her own marriage had been wrecked by a red-haired model with pouty lips, no hips and legs that went on for ever. Since then, she'd always been the one to back out. Either she'd got fed up herself, or she'd seen the signs in her partner. And yet now, as if under some compulsion, she couldn't do it. She couldn't turn her back this time, not with Tim. All the more incredible, since she'd known him for nearly twenty years, and never understood why women fell down before him like ninepins, until one day, at some baleful conjunction of their stars, he'd chosen to pick up the ball and roll it in her direction.
She was totally unable to understand herself, why she'd so far been powerless to do anything to stop the affair. There'd never been much more to it, on his part at any rate, than sexual gratification, never true love she knew Tim too well for that and it shamed her. At the knowledge of what she was doing, she felt as though something in her was slowly dying.
But after tonight, she was dully aware that it had gone beyond Ellie and Tim. Clare and the children could well be drawn in. The time had come when she had to act. Very well then, she would. Somehow she'd find the will to do it. But she swore that never again would she allow anyone to do this to her. Which meant that she could see her life going on, futile, pointless, repetitive, until she became too old to attract anyone and then she'd be alone.
Except for Clare. One thing she could rely on: Clare would always be there.
Some distance away, another woman lay in the dark. She came back to consciousness, opened her eyes, but could see nothing only blackness. She had a violent headache, and felt slightly sick.
She had a vague remembrance of a previous awakening, of finding herself struggling to move her limbs, and being unable to move. Her hands and feet had been tied. She'd struggled feebly, and felt the bonds chafing her wrists, but her strength soon gave out and unconsciousness overcame her again.
She was lying now on what seemed to be some sort of narrow truckle bed with a blanket thrown over her. Experimentally, she moved her hands, then her feet. They were no longer tied. She tried to sit up, but dizziness and nausea forced her to lie back again.
She stared into the blackness and tried to remember what had happened. She could dimly recall a fierce struggle with someone who was taller and stronger than she was; but nothing more. Where was she, and why had she been brought here? How long had she lain unconscious? Who was he, her assailant?
More importantly, who was she?
The sense of non-identity was terrifying. Almost worse than the thought of being left here alone, in this cold, dank, echoing place, perhaps until she died.
The horror of that made her try and sit up again, but her head swam and she had to abandon the effort, defeated by her own weakness. Yet behind the helplessness she sensed a strength and determination that seemed to be natural to her. She would surely feel better presently, and when she did she would get up and explore, find some way out. She wasn't going to die, not yet.
At some time during the night, the wind died down and the heavy rain turned to a drizzle that would later still turn to fog. The river banks did not overflow. And the long night's surveillance by the police brought forth nothing, other than frustration. No one visited, or left, the ramshackle house on the curve of the river.
'Come to bed, you can't stay up all night.'
Alex, ex-sergeant Alex Jones of the Lavenstock police division, stood in the doorway, her dark hair tousled, her face still blank with sleep. 'They'll ring if there's any news. I'll make us a hot drink.'
So she hadn't been able to sleep, either. Mayo's heart smote him. Alex was the sort of person whose inner state was reflected in her looks, and her dark blue eyes had darker smudges under them, her clear, naturally pale skin was paler than it should have been. She didn't look well. Or was he letting his imagination, his worry, get the better of him? He should have more confidence in her innate steadiness, her ability to see things straight.
She'd lately had things on her mind, sure, a big decision to make, but, being Alex, and having maybe made one mistake already, she was still capable of worrying about it. Another blast of rain hit the window panes and she stretched her hand out and pulled him to his feet.
The parrot, Bert, under his night-time covering, stirred and gave a token squawk on hearing voices, rustled his feathers and sank back into his own mysterious night world as Mayo switched out the light.
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